With a song of Asia on his lips, US Vice-President Joe Biden has set the tone for his maiden visit to New Delhi by underlining the centrality of India in the evolving Asia-Pacific architecture.
Serenading New Delhi’s Look East policy in an important foreign policy address at George Washington University, Biden eloquently hailed India’s emergence as a force for security and growth in the region.
Biden’s remarks came against the backdrop of the US’ rebalancing towards Asia-Pacific, the upsurge in India’s role in the East Asia theatre and China’s fears of the US’ strategy of containment implicit in the so-called Asia pivot.
“One of the reasons why President (Barack) Obama has called our relationship with India a defining partnership of the century ahead is that India is increasingly looking East as a force for security and growth in Southeast Asia and beyond,” he said in Washington July 18. “To us that’s welcome news,” said Biden in his speech on the “US policy toward the Asia-Pacific region and India’s growing role in the region,” at George Washington University under the auspices of the Centre for American Progress, a Washington think tank. “We encourage it. We welcome India’s engagement with the region and we welcome its efforts to develop new trade and transportation by land and by sea,” he said.
Asia Rebalance: India’s concerns
Biden’s remarks aptly encapsulated India’s dramatic acceleration of engagement with Southeast Asia and the East Asia region in the last two decades since the country launched its Look East policy in the 1990s. India-ASEAN bilateral trade has surged to $80 billion, and many Southeast Asian countries are rooting for a more proactive role for New Delhi in the region. The US’ projection of India’s pivotal role in the evolving East Asia architecture has become a leitmotif of Washington’s pivot Asia, which has been now rejigged as “Asia rebalance” and has figured prominently in speeches and formulations of top US diplomats in the last three years. India has, however, treaded cautiously on the evangelical zeal with which Washington has been pushing its pivot policy as sections in the country’s diplomatic-strategic establishment do not wish to be drawn overtly into any deliberate anti-China containment strategy.
Against this backdrop, Biden’s speech shows a re-inflection or recalibration on Washington’s part as Biden placed the US’ balance policy against the larger resurgence of Asia, including the ineluctable rise of China. This was reflected in Biden’s pitch for an inclusive rule-based order that spurs the success of Asia and his emphasis on the inter-linkage between the Asian renaissance and the West’s quest for prosperity amid the festering global downturn.
Rules of the Road
Speaking to foreign policy wonks, Biden stressed that the US wants to help create 21st century “rules of the road” to help Asian nations integrate, achieve security and prosper. “Many nations have experienced rapid economic transformation that has fundamentally created a new dynamic, rising ambitions and rising tensions,” he said. “But the rules and norms that one can predict to deal with both those changes, the order needed, remained incomplete.” “Now we want to hasten the emergence of an Asian-Pacific order that delivers security and prosperity for all the nations involved”
Biden pitched for lowering of barriers and freer movement of goods, capital and ideas across the Asia-Pacific region. “The lifeblood of the region is obviously economic development, but growth has slowed in India, China, in many places in Asia, and each country faces distinct and different challenge,” he said. “To spark new growth, there has to be fewer barriers at and behind our borders, protections for intellectual property to reward innovation, new commitments to make sure everyone plays by the same rules because that’s what attracts investment and jobs.”
Asia’s Success: No Zero Sum Game
Most important, Biden assuaged the US’ European allies that the rebalance towards the Asia-Pacific will not undermine Europe’s centrality to the US but will only buttress prosperity in the West, in Asia and the world.
“Europe remains the cornerstone of our engagement with the rest of the world. That is a fact. We’re not going anywhere,” Rejecting a zero-sum game, he said: “It’s overwhelmingly in our interest that India continues to grow. It’s overwhelmingly in our interest that China grows. It’s overwhelmingly in our interest that the world economy grow because we believe Asia’s success is fundamentally linked to ours.”
Next stage in India-US Ties
Placing the US-India ties against this backdrop of the unfolding Asian renewal, Biden, a robust backer of revivified India-US engagement, stressed that the US was engaging directly with India as it makes some fundamental choices about its own future.
Raising the bar for economic relations, an important theme of his India visit, Biden said that bilateral trade with India has increased five-fold in the last ten years reaching nearly $100 billion. “There was no reason, if our countries make the right choices, trade cannot grow fivefold or more,” he said.
This optimistic projection is, however, no reason for smugness. In a realistic vein, Biden admitted that “we still have a lot of work to do on a wide range of issues,” which included civil nuclear cooperation, bilateral investment treaty and policies promoting innovation. “There is a lot of work to do,” he said. “But we believe going with an open mind and listening as well as well as making our case, it can be done.”
The spotlight is now on Biden’s talks with his Indian interlocutors in New Delhi. If both sides show an open mind, listen deeply and resolve issues in the spirit of mutual accommodation, the talks will not only set the stage for a successful summit meeting between Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and US President Barack Obama in September, but could also firm up an ambitious agenda for the next stage in the India-US partnership in the decades ahead.
- Manish Chand is Founder-CEO and Editor-in-Chief of India Writes Network (www.indiawrites.org) and India and World, a pioneering magazine focused on international affairs. He is CEO/Director of TGII Media Private Limited, an India-based media, publishing, research and consultancy company.
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