Biden victory – Implications for the World and Sri Lanka
Posted on November 14th, 2020

Prof. N. A. de S. Amaratunga   DSc

Joseph Biden has decisively won the US presidential elections in November 2020 though President Trump also did extremely well getting more than 47% of the popular vote. This indicates towards a politically divided America and that Trumpism, or the nationalism that he gave leadership to, could influence future domestic as well as foreign US policies. Apart from this internal contradiction, there had been in the outside world also significant changes which could impact on these policies. First there is the huge Chinese factor which cannot be wished away and which has already critically undermined US global influence and hegemony. Second the Russian resurgence and its ambitions in its vicinity and also elsewhere, eg. Syria, are not easy to favourably resolve. Third the belligerence of the nuclear powered North Korea with its ICBM aimed at the US and the nuclear ambitious Iran have to be factored in. Fourth the US allies particularly the European Union which have been estranged due to Trumpism, and Brexit which was opposed by Biden will have to be addressed.

The question is whether these issues would make Joe Biden deviate from the usual ugly American” approach, the aggressive pursuance of its global agenda aimed to dominate the world, and adopt a less abrasive policy specially towards small countries. Biden in his election campaign had indicated his position regarding most of these issues though apparently it is a position that refuses to deviate from the usual US attitude towards what it perceives as anti-democratic authoritarian states. For instance he has not shown any conciliatory attitude towards China and also Russia. He has said he will counter Chinese aggressive economic practices. Further he has said Russia is an opponent” and that he would oppose its attempts to grab” countries like Crimea. Yet he may go against Trump’s policy and seek Russia’s cooperation in arms control and consider entering into anti-proliferation treatises, two of which have been canceled by Trump.

However there could be significant policy changes with regard the Middle East. Biden has said he will negotiate with Iran about entering into the now defunct international accord on the nuclear programme in exchange for relaxing of sanctions. Iran has been busy amassing enriched nuclear fuel in its nuclear programme after Trump withdrew from the agreement and clamped trade sanctions. Biden will continue Trump’s policy of stopping the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. He  has also shown opposition to the Israel attempts to annex parts of Palestinian land in its settlement schemes and he could be concerned about human rights of Palestinians which the Democratic party is pushing for. Saudi Arabia doesn’t like Biden’s policy on Iran. Biden also wants the Saudi-led war against Yemen stopped. Due to these reasons both Israel and Saudi Arabia wanted a Trump victory.

Biden may try to build up an alliance to oppose the Chinese aggressive policies in the South China Sea, and over trade, Hong Kong, Taiwan and the technology war specially in the area of communication. Whether US allies are interested in joining the US would depend on several factors. They are somewhat disillusioned with Trump and recent polls show that American reputation has plummeted even amongst staunch allies. Trump had said NATO is obsolete” and wanted to withdraw from it. Biden will have to do a lot to win over their confidence in order to act together against their adversaries. This may prove to be difficult as most of the US allies have strong trade and aid arrangements with China and may be reluctant to go the full distance with the US on this issue.

China’s network of trade and aid in the five Continents is so vast and entrenched that dismantling or countering it would be a difficult task. To take one example Australia, which is an ally of the West and a member of QUAD the anti-China front, has allowed China in the last decade to pour billions of dollars into Australia, China owns an airport in Western Australia, nine million hectares of farm land, a port in Darwin, several coal mines and wind farms. As mentioned above this is the result of the vast changes that had undergone in the global economic and political power equation where China has played a huge role.

In any city in the Continent of Africa it is said that any building higher than three stories or a road longer than three kilometers is being built by Chinese companies with Chinese aid. Africa wanted to modernize, urbanize and industrialize fast and no world power had answered Africa’s call as China has. China may eventually own airports, harbours and such strategic assets in Zambia, Uganda, and Kenya. And the benefits of this revolution in Africa would be reaped by China to a significant degree in economic and political terms. China’s Road and Belt Initiative is winding its way into Lebanon and several other Middle East countries as well and it has pledged aid to the value of USD 20 billion to these countries.

China has increased its defense expenditure by 800% since 1990s and is no push over if it comes to a fight, nuclear or otherwise, though a war is most unlikely. The point is that the gigantic country cannot be brow beaten and the US would know this. Further China has controlled the Covid pandemic effectively and with minimum damage and has started to recover from the economic downturn and would soon be in a position to further its global ambitions which are benign compared to those of the West.

Apart from these gigantic changes in the outside world which Joe Biden has to contend with, there are internal issues of a pressing nature. Most importantly the Covid-19 is threatening to wipe out its population with more than ten million infected and more than hundred thousand deaths. The daily count is increasing and now is in the range of 150000. Biden must realize that the pandemic cannot be brought under control without draconian measures. In this difficult job he has to deal with part of the population that stood with Trump when he cocked a snook at the virus. This would have a huge effect on the economy which is already reeling due to the pandemic. Biden also has to address the climate issue which he has promised. Cutting down on emissions to meet the Paris agreement requirement would have an adverse effect on the economy at least at the beginning. Then he has to rectify relations with US allies and also realign with NATO, WHO, UNHRC etc.

Joe Biden and the US may not be strong enough at this juncture to pursue the usual aggressive policies on China and also Russia, Iran and North Korea due to the reasons mentioned above. On the other hand a total change of strategy also cannot be expected. A path somewhere in the middle may have to be carefully chosen. Several International Relations scholars are of the view that US may have to put its hegemonic and imperialist agenda in the back burner and not go pell-mell with the cold war that Trump had started. Instead the US would try to strengthen its relations and step up economic and military assistance to its allies in the region they call the Indo-Pacific. Trump had already done this with India just before the election. The US may not resort to arm-twisting in its dealings with small countries for it knows such action would only push these countries into the arms of the waiting dragon who is more than willing and capable of responding with a tight embrace.

The US may not pressure Sri Lanka to sign the MCC, SOFA and ACSA. It may not ask SL to take difficult but necessary decisions”. Softer coercive measures would most probably be adopted. In the UN also the US cannot do much damage that matter because of the presence of Sri Lankan friends wielding veto power in the Council. The US in this regard may be somewhat disadvantaged due to its inability to meet the economic and development needs of small countries it would like to take in its neo-colonial grip if possible, in its effort to thwart the advance of China. The latter in contrast with a good post-Covid economic recovery would be in a position to help these countries and neutralize the US efforts in the process.

India our immediate neibour who is now inextricably aligned with the US, however, has enormous internal and external problems that it may not like to complicate matters by getting involved in the internal affairs of its neutral neighbours. The Covid pandemic is raging and taking a heavy toll on the people and the economy. Punjab issue is a complicated intractable problem which makes India’s involvement in similar issues in other countries seem hypocritical to say the least. Further, externally it has to contend with China and Pakistan on two borders. India it appears, to a degree, is in the same boat as the US. Like the US India too may have to adopt a middle path in its relations with its neighbours. Perhaps realising the complexity of these issues India has already started to mend relations with Nepal and seems to be keen on developing good relations with its other neighbours as well. In this scenario trying to pressure Sri Lanka on the devolution issue may not be in the national interest of India. Therefore we could hope that India will not resort to attempts at subversion of our government or destabilize it by other means as it did previously. India is also aware that Sri Lanka has a good and strong friend in China.

Under these circumstances Sri Lanka’s strategy should be to demonstrate an effective diplomatic facade of neutrality and non-alignment and make the maximum use of the opportunities that come its way to develop the country without compromising on national interests, assets, territory, independence and sovereignty.

Prof. N. A. de S. Amaratunga   DSc

One Response to “Biden victory – Implications for the World and Sri Lanka”

  1. Nihal Perera Says:

    “Under these circumstances Sri Lanka’s strategy should be to demonstrate an effective diplomatic facade of neutrality and non-alignment and make the maximum use of the opportunities that come its way to develop the country without compromising on national interests, assets, territory, independence and sovereignty.”

    I certainly agree with this writer, especially the last paragraph…. Well-said!

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