Joe Biden’s pick of Kamala Devi Harris, a Black and Indian American, with a mother from India and father from Jamaica, as his running mate has generated some hype in India. Biden leads President Donald Trump by a margin in nearly all the polls for the US presidential election in November. Harris could soon be the US vice-president, and perhaps even the president one day. If the Biden ticket wins, what does a Harris vice-presidency mean for India? Not much, apparently.
Harris does not speak much about her Indian origins, choosing to highlight her African American background instead. Biden chose Harris as his running mate largely because of her dedicated involvement in the #BlackLivesMatter campaign: the African Americans, who make up roughly 13 percent of the US electorate, could be casting the decisive vote in November. Going by what has appeared in the Indian press, the Indians don’t expect much from Harris, even as they are sure she will ease visa restrictions for Bangalore and Hyderabad techies who dream of Silicon Valley. Human rights are her forte and she could be more willing to take a principled stand on, say, Kashmir. But, then, she will also speak up on Tibet and Xinjiang.
Yet the broad contours of America’s Asian policy are likely to remain intact, whosoever comes to power in November. US-China ties will remain frosty and probably get a lot worse. There is now a bipartisan support in Washington DC for a tougher line on China. This naturally translates into strengthening ties with India to check China’s spreading ‘authoritarianism’ in South Asia. The White House could, once in a while, fire off a statement or two on the human rights situation in Kashmir, or over lack of protection for religious minorities in India. But on the whole, the two countries will work more closely.
For they want to thwart a common enemy. So where does Nepal fit into this picture? China’s hold on Nepal will increase under any future communist dispensation in Kathmandu. In fact, even if Nepali Congress comes to power, it will have a hard time resisting Chinese charms. There is strong consensus in favor of closer ties with China, both in the ruling NCP and the opposition NC. By the same calculus, Kathmandu will be under pressure to maintain a safe distance from the US-India nexus.
The NCP government espouses diversification, and yet it is not interested in looking beyond China. Tomorrow, if India takes offense and acts rashly in response, so much the better for the NCP’s electoral prospects. But what if the US wades in to protect Indian interests? Well, they will cross that river when they get to it. In sum: PM Oli and his China-leaning comrades will not resist the temptation to antagonize India at every opportune moment, even if the country may have to pay for it.
Right now, Modi finds his hands full with Covid-19 but the health crisis will eventually abate. Then what? India has realized it alone cannot keep China out of its immediate neighborhood. Four years ago, I wrote about how the US-India ties would get stronger during Trump’s presidency. As of now, the relations are destined to get closer still under any future US government, Republican or Democrat. The US-China tussle will continue to be the defining feature of the first half of the 21st century. In this larger battle, small countries like Nepal and Sri Lanka could be collateral damage.