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SPECIAL — How will Joe Biden approach South Asia?
November 13th, 2020 at 12:40 pm
SPECIAL — How will Joe Biden approach South Asia?

India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi is one of the few world leaders who are likely to feel a twinge of sadness when Donald Trump finally concedes defeat.

The two men share the same populist approach and whip up the emotions of their supporters on social media. However, last year, Modi won a landslide election victory, earning him a second term in office – something that Trump has failed to do, even though he managed to obtain more than 70 million American voters.

Meanwhile in the context of Bangladesh, frankly, though, with so many serious problems facing the US – as well as a continued rift with China on other issues – I cannot see the Rohingya issue gaining much attention in Washington in the coming years.

President Trump looked to be on the winning side when, in February 2020, he accepted Modi’s invitation to visit the state of Gujarat, where he addressed a jubilant crowd.

“As we continue to build our defence cooperation, the United States looks forward to providing India with some of the best and most feared military equipment on the planet. We make the greatest weapons ever made: aeroplanes, missiles, rockets, ships. We make the best of it. And we’re dealing now with India,” he said.

Weapons sales

Just a week ahead of the November US presidential election, two of Mr Trump’s closest aides reminded India of his support during a trip to New Delhi. Defense Secretary, Mark Esper, and Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, hailed what they described as a “significant milestone” as India and the United States signed a deal which enables the nations to share intelligence information, gathered from satellites and other sources. India will use this to monitor both Pakistan and China.

Mr Esper’s departure was suddenly announced by the president on Twitter, soon after the election. “Mark Esper has been terminated” he Tweeted. The warning signs were evident at a recent press conference when Mr Trump referred to him as Mark “Yesper”.

“Mark Yesper? Did you call him Yesper?” Trump said. “I consider firing everybody. At some point, that’s what happens.”

However, in his final few weeks in the job, Mr Esper did his best to ensure that the US will increase its arms sales to India, including fighter aircraft and unmanned aerial systems.

Friends and allies

When Joe Biden enters the White House in January, he will need to find a new person to lead the defence department but he will not make profound changes in the approach of the Trump administration. In fact, I expect that in most regards, American foreign policy towards Asia will remain similar under Mr Biden as it was under Mr Trump. Mr Biden will wish to nurture America’s alliances in the region, especially with Japan and South Korea, and strengthen ties with friendly countries, such as India.

However, I think the tone will change in relation to US engagement with multilateral institutions. This could be good for Bangladesh. The US is the single largest export destination for Bangladeshi goods, especially clothes made by the garment sector. If the US makes a concerted effort to patch up the divisions within the World Trade Organisation – and move from an America-first approach to a more multilateral trading system – that will be benefit countries which export their goods to America.

Prime Minister’s message

I think this was implicit in the messages that Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina sent to congratulate Mr Biden and vice-president-elect Kamala Harris at the start of this week. Sheikh Hasina said: “Bangladesh, over the years since its independence in 1971, has forged an excellent and durable relationship with the USA. Now, with you at the helm of affairs of your country, I foresee the relationship reaching new heights in the coming days.”

Naturally, the government of Bangladesh will want the incoming American president to recognise the social and economic progress the country is making and to acknowledge the important contribution made by exporters. However, it is unrealistic to expect the Biden administration to want to renegotiate the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) which were suspended in 2013 by then-president Barack Obama.

Although Biden had said he will take a less confrontational approach on trade than Trump, he is still at heart something of a protectionist. He frequently used the slogan “buy American” on the campaign trail and told his supporters that American workers can out-compete anyone.

The Rohingya Issue

Biden’s campaign rhetoric also included frequent mentions of human rights. This was noted by Sheik Hasina in her message to the President-elect. “I look forward to working closely with you in attaining shared ideals as well as in effectively confronting the evils of terrorism, violent extremism, hatred, forced displacements as of the Rohingyas, and for the realization of a safer and a better world,” she said.

Her hope seems to be that the US will become proactive in resolving the Rohingya crisis, by leading negotiations on the issue involving China, Myanmar and Bangladesh.

Rohingya refugees rally in Cox’s Bazar on August 25, 2019

China’s view

The Communist Party of China does not seem to believe that the outcome of the US election will be particularly significant when it comes to American foreign policy in the Indo-Pacific.

Reading through the statements which have come from the party’s recent annual plenum, I noted that delegates expect further “decoupling” between the US and China in strategic fields. The best response, according to the CCP, is a patriotic national effort towards greater self-sufficiency.

Both Mr Trump and Mr Biden sought to appear tough on China during the campaign period. Their rhetoric has reflected an increasingly negative view of the country among the American public. I do not imagine that the distrust and suspicion will suddenly lift at the end of the election cycle.

So for the politicians and business people making strategic plans in Beijing, Dhaka and New Delhi, I think it is safe to assume that the key themes of American political engagement with Asia in the four years will not be particularly different to the recent past. There will be more smiles, less angry Tweeting and a lot of handshakings. But the great power rivalry between the United States and China will remain the key feature of our modern world.


Duncan Bartlett is the Editor of Asian Affairs magazine.