U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, left, with India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on July 23 in New Delhi (Photo:http://pmindia.nic.in)
Once you get past the customary sidelight of monkeys disrupting routines in the Indian capital of New Delhi, there does not seem to be much to the news of U.S. Vice President Joe Biden’s four-day India visit. Sure, the fact that he is the first vice president to visit India in nearly three decades may count for something. The last vice president to pay a visit was George H. W. Bush in 1984.
Normally, the vice president is sent as a stand-in for the president who often may not be able to slot a visit. However, in Biden’s case it is more than just a salutary engagement with India. Given his extensive influence on the U.S. foreign policy in the region and particularly the impending drawdown of the U.S. troops from Afghanistan, the visit could prove more substantial than reflexive cynics like me may think.
One often hears from experts informally that Washington sees New Delhi as an important inheritor of its interests in Afghanistan and vicinity once the U.S. forces leave in 2014. Of course, no one in the Obama administration has explicitly said so. However, it has become received wisdom that India will have a clearly defined role in Afghanistan, possibly as a guarantor of American interests. It is in this context that Biden’s visit is seen as important. I am not entirely sure of this construct even though it sounds impressive. That’s because India’s interests in the region are quite apart and irrespective of whether America recognizes them. It is possible that there is a happy convergence between what India sees itself as in the extended South Asian context and the way the U.S. sees its role post-2014.
The vice presidential visit has a definite broader agenda as articulated by Biden himself during his speech today in Mumbai. Four areas of bilateral engagement were highlighted by Biden. They were strengthening economic ties, improving cooperation over climate change, more collaboration in defense matters and India’s position within the Asia-Pacific region. These are broad themes which cannot possibly be addressed during a visit of this nature. The best that can happen is sharpen the focus of the two countries.
A familiar point while analyzing a visit like this relates to how the U.S. sees India as counterbalancing China within Asia and perhaps beyond. It is a perspective that has some takers in India because it gives them a sense of global consequence. In reality, India does not specifically see itself as a countervailing force. It is somewhere between conciliatory and cautious rather than openly adversarial. That is understandable given that the 3488-kilometer (2180 miles) border that the two share and along which the two make many disputed territorial claims. For Washington, encouraging New Delhi to rise as Beijing’s counterbalance may be part of some grand strategy but for India and China border tensions and claims are very much physical and real friction points. This reality clearly influences the foreign policy establishments of the two countries when it comes to how they position themselves in regional and global contexts.
Unless Biden runs for president in 2016 and actually becomes one, this visit is like a farewell trip. The scope of what it can achieve is inherently limited by several factors, including the very nature of his office. Of course, the amusing sight of monkeys swinging on the branches of a mango tree and biting into the fruit near the Gandhi Smriti even as the Bidens were visiting the monument in Delhi is not one of the factors. There was some apprehension among the security detail that a particularly insolent monkey might defy diplomatic decorum and pelt the visitors with half-eaten mangoes. That did not happen presumably because the monkeys understood the importance of the man in their midst.