Setting the tone: On Biden’s first call to Modi

Biden’s calls stress the U.S.’s commitment to internationalism, regional cooperation

U.S. President Joe Biden has sounded the starting bell for the great game of bilateral give-and-take between Washington and major world powers, including India and China, when he made his first calls, as President, to key allies and partner nations. Already, it is evident that the issues and tensions that will define the cadence of U.S.-India ties and U.S.-China ties are variegated and embrace the complexity of today’s multi-dimensionally interconnected world. While some analysts complained that Mr. Biden took “too long” to call Prime Minister Narendra Modi, on February 8, it is noteworthy that the call was shortly after the White House had reached out to immediate neighbours and treaty allies, thereby indicating that Washington’s engagement with India will continue to be a priority. Mr. Biden’s call with Chinese President Xi Jinping, which came two days later, reflected a sharper, even strident, exchange of views, with palpable diplomatic choke points, including China’s actions towards Taiwan, Hong Kong and the Uighur minority community in Xinjiang, making their presence felt in the call readouts. What is clear is that the Biden administration will seek to retain a few elements of the Trump White House paradigm — such as persisting with trade tariffs — while pursuing foreign policy objectives that resonate far more closely with core Democratic Party values, including fighting for the integrity of democratic institutions abroad.

Indeed, the Biden White House’s insistence on keeping respect for democratic institutions front and centre amidst the gamut of bilateral issues might be causing South Block some discomfort. Given the State Department’s comments so far on the farmers’ protest in the NCR, including statements that could be interpreted as pushback against Internet outages imposed at the protest locations, Mr. Biden’s flagging “his desire to defend democratic institutions and norms around the world”, and a “shared commitment to democratic values” as the “bedrock for the U.S.-India relationship”, might not be the solace Mr. Modi’s foreign policy team was looking for. But Mr. Biden has adopted a softer approach with New Delhi than he did with Beijing — he had “fundamental concerns about Beijing’s coercive and unfair economic practices”, in addition to the points of diplomatic tension regarding Taiwan, Hong Kong and Xinjiang. In their core message, Mr. Biden’s calls to Mr. Modi and Mr. Xi hint that unlike the transactional approach of the “America First” dogma, the thread of the U.S.’s foreign policy paradigm now will comprise progressive values, a commitment to internationalism, and reliance on regional cooperation on global governance subjects including climate change. Indeed, this could put the brakes on the accelerating global trend toward nationalism in foreign policy across the world.

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