A Global Reset is in the Making

Sub Title : US is attempting to shape the Global Order such that it regains its strategic eminence

Issues Details : Vol 15 Issue 1 Mar – Apr 2021

Author : Lt Gen Ata Hasnain, PVSM, UYSM, AVSM, SM**, VSM (Retd), Lt Gen Vinod Bhatia, PVSM, AVSM, SM (Retd), Col Ashwani Sharma (Retd) , Amb Vivek Katju

Page No. : 15

Category : Geostrategy

: March 27, 2021

Joe Biden’ s Foreign Policy is focussed on repairing  US’s alliances, which have suffered some setbacks under Donald Trump. The US will strive to return  to a “position of trusted leadership” among world democracies to counter challenges from Russia and China. To this end, Team Biden has hit the ground running . Virtual meeting of QUAD heads of states, a high level meeting with China in Alaska and the recent visit by Defence Secretary Lloyd  Austin to India are all signs that US is attempting to shape the Global Order such that it regains its strategic eminence

With the negative effect of the pandemic on the US economy and the defeat of Donald Trump in the US presidential election, China may have imagined a positive turn in the competition with the US for the progressive dominance of the world order. However, if there is one trend which the world and China failed to correctly predict, it is the degree to which the US under President Joe Biden would go to retain US strategic dominance. In a measured and rational way Biden’s return to traditional ways of leadership has given the US strategic clarity very early in his presidential tenure. The passionate intent to limit and manage China’s rise is as much prevalent as was under Donald Trump but the approach is different.  China may find this balanced midway strategy between the Obama and Trump doctrines quite awkward to deal with. The uncharacteristic aggressiveness with which Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan waded into issues of concern with China at Anchorage, Alaska appeared to unmistakably suggest that the US Administration has decided that it will adopt aggression in its attitude.  It will work towards pushing back Chinese efforts to exercise muscle and secure any strategic advantage which includes domains such as China’s dealing with Uyghur Muslims of Xinjiang, the laws in Hong Kong which by agreement cannot be changed till 2047, coercing Taiwan, bringing aggressive intent to the borders with a couple of neighbors (including India), and attempt to prevent freedom of navigation in the Pacific. What is obvious is that there is going to be no de-escalation in the foreseeable future. It’s going to be one big exercise in posturing by both sides. The battle lines are changing and the US is realizing that China may perceive the US under Biden going soft and unable to pursue its interests. That is not going to happen.

It’s a reset not only in configuration of partnerships but equally in the priority accorded to geographical regions. Europe is of much lesser concern and the Middle East has quieted down. Biden has made it clear that causticity towards Iran is not a part of his policy even as the revival of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action on Iran is sought and negotiated. There are potential spoilers on the ready but Biden’s comparative lack of warmth for the Trump favourites isn’t encouraging their aggression. That is allowing the shift of focus to the other theatre, the Indo Pacific. Ideally the US would like to exit Afghanistan earliest to have lesser areas to focus on. The Taliban is demanding full and final exit by 31 May as per earlier agreement but Afghanistan cannot be abandoned to the risk of leaving it to the Taliban. There is relative consensus among big powers and neighbours on this but peace may remain elusive and thus cause impediment in US strategy to now have exclusive strategic focus on the Indo Pacific.

China’s behavior and attitude during the pandemic has clearly been one of a spoiler, aiming essentially at a form of disruption of the old order and demonstrating the imposition of its will in the region which it feels will witness maximum competition in the future; the Indo Pacific. It was inevitable that the rise of China would see it in competition with the US for the domination of the international economy and the strategic space; it will not remain satisfied as an equal. This is a far cry from 1969 when the US made a special effort to get China out of its isolation to join the international community. The US wished for China to develop as a responsible nation to foil the Soviet Union. Much of the assistance towards seeding that growth came from the US itself but at some stage realpolitik dictated competition and then confrontation. We are now heading towards that phase where transition to confrontation is on the cards.

The Quadrilateral of Nations (QUAD) is a grouping of the US, Japan, Australia and India which came into being in 2007 on the sidelines of an ASEAN Regional Forum meeting in the Philippines. Its purpose was to have a club of important democracies of the Indo Pacific to remain in consultation. The issue always remained whether China’s rise needs to be managed by engagement or confrontation. The situation since 2007 has evolved through many crises but never really allowed the QUAD to settle down to a strategy. That seems to have changed in 2020. India and Australia, have both been hit negatively by China’s coercion; India’s case is particularly awkward because of a sudden reverse by China from cooperation to coercion. The US is keen that the QUAD leads its efforts in the shift of focus to the Indo Pacific. All four members have special roles to play due to their geostrategic locations in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. The rapid progress from Foreign Ministers’ meet in Japan in Oct 2020 to the leaders’ summit in Mar 2021 reveals the kind of significance being accorded to the QUAD. Its expansion, initially with consultant nations (France being one of them) and then with their full membership, is something that will be observed very keenly and will be used to message China on consensus among nations about the direction in which China is going with regard to its rise. QUAD will need to very carefully tread the scope of its own role in the security matrix of the Indo Pacific. It’s not a simple black and white affair dealing with the huge challenges which confront the nations. A NATO of the East is still a far cry role of the QUAD.

The visit of US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin’s to Delhi on 19-21 Mar 2021 within four months of the 2+2 Dialogue under former President Donald Trump is a clear indication of continuity in the engagement between India and the US and high strategic significance being accorded by the US to the emerging strategic partnership. During his visit to the Pentagon in Feb 2021, Biden conveyed the message that the U.S. is “prepared to confront – and when necessary, militarily counter – a rising China.” Biden has also decided to set up the establishment of a new Defense Department China Task Force. This Task Force (something on the lines of India’s China Study Group) will examine areas that will include strategy, force posture, technology and intelligence. What India needs to do is to also examine the scope of its China Study Group which has done some yeoman service so far, and expand its ambit to the specifics of cooperation in the Indo Pacific.

It makes much sense for India to be a part of emerging equations and partnerships to retain multiple options in dealing with the threat from China. The improving situation at the LAC and LoC should for now be considered tactical. The real picture will emerge in the next few years by when we should be strategically better embedded in partnerships in the making. It’s mind space that we need to continuously share with our partners.  However, a word of caution for the US. The ready enthusiasm it is receiving in Delhi will dilute substantially if CAATSA is applied against India and any sanctions imposed due to the S 400 deal with Russia. The US has to understand that along with special relationships there will also have to be special understanding of sensitivities to ensure sustenance of such a relationship.

Lt Gen Ata Hasnain, PVSM, UYSM, AVSM, SM**, VSM (Retd)


The Quad Challenge-Managing China and Contradictions

“ In the midst of chaos, there is also an opportunity” -Sun Tzu, The Art of War

The challenge for the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue in its new avatar, popularly known as the QUAD will be to manage China and the inherent contradictions of the member nations, specially India, which is the only nation sharing a 3488 Km unsettled land border with China. This may sound difficult, but China’s coercion and its newfound aggressive behavior drives the QUAD nations to meet and mitigate the emerging China threat.

President Biden sounded the bugle as he hosted the first ever multilateral summit after assuming office, bringing together, albeit virtually, the heads of states of Australia, India and Japan on March 12, on one platform, “four leaders of great liberal democracies” as stated by the Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison. In the wake of the QUAD heads of state meeting more parleys followed during the week. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin  traveled to Tokyo, and Seoul to reaffirm the United States’ commitment to strengthening their alliances and to highlight cooperation that promotes peace, security, and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region and around the world. The U.S. and others share the values and principles of keeping an open Indo-Pacific region, but China is “all too willing to use coercion to get its way.” The two ministers added, “Here again, we see how working with our allies is critical.” This was followed by a frank exchange of views between the Foreign and Defence secretaries of the US with top Chinese diplomats Yang Jiechi and Wang Yi in Alaska on 18 March. This meeting was immediately followed by Lloyd Austin’s visit to Delhi and meetings with the Indian Prime Minister and Defence Minister on 19/20 March. This is indicative of the congruence and convergence of interests between the world’s oldest and largest democracies and India’s leadership role in the emerging world order.

The core objectives of the QUAD are to ensure a rules-based global order, liberal trading system and freedom of navigation. It seeks to contain a ‘rising China’ and work against its predatory trade and economic policies. The joint statement after the QUAD heads of state meeting reaffirmed the commitment, noting the leaders’ support for shared values. The Joint statement went on to state “We will begin cooperation on the critical technologies of the future to ensure that innovation is consistent with a free, open, inclusive, and resilient Indo-Pacific. We will continue to prioritize the role of international law in the maritime domain, particularly as reflected in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), and facilitate collaboration, including in maritime security, to meet challenges to the rules-based maritime order in the East and South China Seas”.

The QUAD, without naming it, is attempting to counter balance China and contain its aggressiveness in the region. China is seen as a threat to liberal and democratic values, which the four countries share.

Following the stratagem of Sun Tzu, The Art of War “ In the midst of chaos, there is also an opportunity”, as the world was busy battling the pandemic caused by COVID19, China seeking an opportunity demonstrated its military might, unfolding  the tried and tested strategy of ‘Military Coercion’ backed by ‘Wolf Diplomacy’ and “ Debt Trap’,  escalating tensions over a host of disputes with many of its 27 neighbours including Japan, Australia, Vietnam, Malaysia, Philippines and more importantly  in the Indo- Pacific region,  East and South China Seas. Violating all treaties and the nearly five decade old ‘Peace and Tranquility’ along the India – China Line of Actual Control (LAC), China amassed major components of combat power, threatening and changing the status quo, forcing India to give a resolute and resilient response which led to disengagement of troops and tanks from friction points.

Japan and Australia are both military allies of the US, and hence are fully aligned with the US Indo-Pacific policy. For them the outcomes of QUAD are congruent with their interests. All members also have shared interests in the “3C’s” ie COVID-19 vaccines, Climate Change and Critical Technology, as also in messaging to the “4th C” (China). For India, however, the outcomes of the QUAD Summit need more nuanced analysis. On the “3C’s Working groups”, it is clear that New Delhi is on board, but with some riders. The vaccine initiative, for example, is a major boost for India’s pharmaceutical prowess, which has already been proven during the current pandemic.  Though India is an integral part of QUAD and shares the core concerns, it is at the same time cognizant of the fact that it is the only nation among the QUAD which also shares the land borders and is presently embroiled in a sensitive situation along the LAC, which is still in the process of an incomplete resolution. Hence it is the “4th C” China which continues to be the real challenge for India, as on one hand India needs to deter China’s aggressiveness by standing up to China along the LAC and on the other the need to ‘Bind to Balance’ with like minded nations, a fact which is likely create more divides between the two nuclear armed nations, home to more than one third of humanity.

New Delhi, hence sees QUAD as another multilateral formation, much like the BRICS, IBSA, BIMSTEC and SCO as it still holds on to the principle of strategic autonomy. In that sense, the QUAD’s ideology of a “diamond of democracies” can only succeed if it does not insist on exclusivity in India’s strategic calculations. Despite last week’s QUAD Summit, India’s choices for its QUAD strategy will continue to be guided as much by its location on land as it is by its close association with the U.S., Japan and Australia, across the seas. This in essence is India’s dilemma. How India manages these contradictions in the coming years will dictate the long-term peace, stability and development in the region.

Lt Gen Vinod Bhatia, PVSM, AVSM, SM (Retd)


US-China Bilateral Talks: Unusually Undiplomatic

The Anchorage talks (18 to 19 March 2021), were a series of high level meetings between representatives of the United States and the Peoples Republic of China to discuss a range of issues affecting Sino-American relations. The talks took place in three rounds at the Captain Cook Hotel in Anchorage, Alaska. American officials attending the talks included Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan. Chinese officials attending the talks included Chinese Communist Party Politburo member Yang Jiechi and Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi.

In the run up to the talks diplomatic relations between the two countries had become strained over differing positions on trade, cyber espionage, and human rights related issues. In the week before of the talks, the Biden administration met with US allies in Asia (Japan and S. Korea), imposed sanctions on senior Chinese officials and met with members of Quadrilateral Security Dialogue. Holding the meeting midway between Beijing and Washington showed “goodwill” on part of the two sides, but it ended right there as the talks showcased mutual belligerence.

At the conclusion of two days’ bilateral meeting, Washington called it “tough and direct” talks. It laid bare the depth of tensions between the world’s two largest economies. The two days of meetings, the first high-level, in-person talks since President Biden took office, wrapped up after a rare and fiery kickoff on the first day itself, when the two sides publicly skewered each other’s’ policies in front of TV cameras.

As expected, the talks appeared to yield no diplomatic breakthroughs, but the bitter rivalry on display suggested the two countries had little common ground to reset relations that have sunk to the lowest level in decades. The run-up to the discussions in Anchorage, which followed visits by US officials to allies Japan and South Korea, was marked by a flurry of moves by Washington that showed it was taking a firm stance, as well as by belligerent stance from Beijing warning the US to discard illusions that it would compromise.

“We expected to have tough and direct talks on a wide range of issues, and that’s exactly what we had,” National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters moments after the Chinese delegation left the conference hall.

China’s top diplomat Yang Jiechi stated later on that the discussions had been constructive and beneficial, “but of course, there are still differences.” “China will firmly safeguard national sovereignty, security and development,” added Yang.

While Biden’s new administration is still conducting policy reviews, Yang and Wang by contrast are veteran diplomats with decades of combined experience handling US – China relations at the highest levels of the Chinese government. They are also fresh off of dealing with the Trump administration and its unorthodox approach to U.S. foreign policy.

After the talks, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that  he was not surprised at the “defensive response” from China after he raised allegations of Chinese human rights abuses in Xinjiang, Tibet, and Hong Kong as well as cyberattacks and pressure on Taiwan. But Blinken said the two sides also had intersecting interests on Iran, North Korea, Afghanistan, and climate change, and that the United States had accomplished during the meetings what it had come to do.

The meetings in Anchorage were a new test in increasingly troubled relations between the two countries, which are at odds over a range of issues from trade to human rights in Tibet, Hong Kong and Xinjiang region, as well as over Taiwan, China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea and the coronavirus pandemic. In unusually pointed public remarks for a diplomatic meeting, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Chinese Communist Party foreign affairs chief Yang Jiechi took aim at each other’s country’s policies at the very start of two days of talks.

Blinken said the Biden administration is united with its allies in pushing back against China’s increasing authoritarianism and assertiveness at home and abroad. Yang then unloaded a list of Chinese complaints about the U.S. and accused Washington of hypocrisy for criticising Beijing on human rights and other issues.

Criticising China’s actions in Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Taiwan, and of cyber attacks on the United States, Blinken blamed China for threatening the rules-based order that maintains global stability. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan amplified the criticism, saying China has undertaken an ‘assault on basic values’.

Yang responded angrily and demanded that the US stop pushing its own version of democracy at a time when the United States itself has been roiled by domestic discontent. He also accused the US of failing to deal with its own human rights problems and took issue with what he said was “condescension” from Blinken, Sullivan and other US officials.

Yang continued with the belligerent attitude and added “China will not accept unwarranted accusations from the U.S. side,” adding that recent developments had plunged relations “into a period of unprecedented difficulty” that “has damaged the interests of our two peoples.” ’There is no way to strangle China,” thundered Yang.

Blinken appeared to be annoyed by the tenor and length of the comments. He said his impressions from speaking with world leaders and on his just-concluded trip to Japan and South Korea were entirely different from the Chinese position.

Ahead of the bilateral at Anchorage, Alaska, Blinken and Secretary Defence, Lloyd Austin, chose Asia as their first overseas trip because the Indo-Pacific region is increasingly the center of global geopolitics and they singled out China as a country that seeks to challenge the international order in the region. Before setting off on their Asia visit, Blinken and Austin spoke of the United States’ aim to revitalize ties with their allies and partners. In a way, thus, the battle lines were being drawn in advance. However, if the US expected China to blink, that did not really happen. On the contrary they were faced with a belligerent China who accused the US of imposing its version of democracy, called its attitude ‘condescending’ and accused the US of cybercrimes.

Round one has thus ended in a stalemate. It has served the purpose of defining the present (tough) stance of the two countries. Whether it is posturing in the initial days of the new US administration or reflects the shape of things to come, remains to be seen.

Col Ashwani Sharma (Retd)


Lloyd Austin VisitCloser India-US security Ties

That defence secretary Lloyd Austin became the first cabinet level official of the Biden administration to visit India is one more signal of the significance that the defence and security sector has come to acquire in India-US bilateral relations. This has not been a sudden development but a gradual evolution. The initial moves were made with great hesitation after the end of the Cold War, as both countries confronted the accumulated distrust of decades. The pace of defence and security cooperation quickened as the global geopolitical landscape changed especially after 9/11 when the US struck by terror viewed India’s terrorist predicament with fresh eyes and more so with the rise of China.

These developments led to growing areas of convergence of strategic interests amidst the persistence of contradictions between the compulsions of the world’s pre-eminent power and the aspirations of a strong regional country with an ever-expanding footprint, pre-occupied with the challenge of social change and economic growth. The Indo-US nuclear deal negotiated over a three-year period between 2005-2008 was a product of changing attitudes but transformative too. It reduced entrenched suspicions and began a process of eliminating US legislative barriers to defence cooperation with India.

The thirteen years that have since passed have seen the development of firm bipartisan political support in the US for the growth of bilateral defence and security ties. In India too, except for sections reflexively opposed to the US on ideological considerations, the political class is in favour of India-US defence cooperation. Strategic circles in both countries too are committed to this cooperative process. However, within this general sentiment there are different US and Indian perspectives in important areas that were skirted around during the Austin visit but will need to be carefully handled. But first the matters where the two countries agree though they may articulate their agreements differently.

There is no doubt that both countries are deeply troubled by China’s aggressive assertion of its interests in the Indo-Pacific region and beyond especially since the emergence of Xi Jinping as the country’s supreme leader. China is also now, more than earlier, making clear its disdain for the current international order’s systemic institutions and ‘legal’ principles whenever these come in its way. It has shown this approach during the pandemic too and its activities along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Ladakh were predominantly within a bilateral India-China context but they were a signal to the international community too.  In the latter context, they have to be seen in the same perspective as China’s pressures on Taiwan, its ruthless exhibition of force in Hong Kong, its diplomatic boorishness against Australia, its continuing activities in the South China Sea and the treatment of the Uighurs.

It is here that while the US was openly and severely critical during the Trump administration and the same thrust is being witnessed now during the Biden presidency that India has avoided publicly criticising China even while stressing the need of all states to adhere to international law. Interestingly, Austin was very circumspect on China during his visit to India no doubt partly in deference to his hosts. He stressed core global principles underpinning the maritime domain instead of the open condemnation of China during the earlier leg his Indo-Pacific tour which took him and secretary of state Anthony Blinken to US allies Japan and South Korea for 2+2 dialogues.

While India’s articulation may be different it clearly showed its intent on confronting China when its interests demanded resolute action. This was witnessed both along the LAC and through shedding all hesitancy on participating in the QUAD at the summit level. While both India and the US have naturally avoided giving details of the practical aspects of India-US cooperation that has occurred to assist India counter China’s LAC moves, US has made it known that it has taken place. Before leaving his post in January, US ambassador in Delhi, Kenneth Juster, said in the course of a farewell address “Our close coordination has been important as India confronts, perhaps on a sustained basis, aggressive Chinese activity on its border”. Later, in response to a question, Juster, refused to go into details but said nevertheless “Suffice it to say that we have cooperated. And, I think it has been very positive and very supportive”. There is no doubt that such quiet cooperation would continue during the Biden administration even if Austin and his colleagues do not even refer to it as Juster did.

An area of bilateral tension lies in India’s desire to preserve its right to acquire defence systems and equipment from any source it considers fit even if that would be contrary US laws. This applies to the S-400 Russian made air-defence system. India is determined to acquire it. If the Biden administration decides to invoke sanctions under its laws the entire edifice of defence cooperation that has been put in place with India designated as a ‘major defence partner’ will be shaken. Then the forward movement envisaged during Austin’s visit in existing areas and to explore new areas such as space and cyber will be shaken.

For the US, the Indian partnership’s basic utility lies in the Indo-Pacific region which is, according to Blinken’s comments in Japan “increasingly the center of global geo-politics” and “where so much of the history of the 21st century is going to be written”. The Indo-Pacific is also for India a region of great importance but it does not want Indo-US strategic ties to be unidirectional. Hence, India’s Defence Minister Singh mentioned that Austin and he had agreed to “enhanced cooperation” also with Central Command and Africa Command. It remains to be seen if there will be any real progress with them. Another area of cooperation whose fate remains presently uncertain is meaningful joint defence production though it is one of great promise.

India will remain unhappy if the Biden administration lectures it on human rights. Austin was under pressure from a key senator to raise such concerns about the Modi government. He claimed he did so but government sources underplayed this aspect. Both countries will have to take care that these issues do not adversely impinge the defence relationship which is poised to grow as amply demonstrated by the Austin visit.

Amb Vivek Katju