Changing shades of US-India ties under Biden
THE conventional wisdom suggests that the US-India partnership, due to the bipartisan support it has been enjoying in Washington may still face some crosscurrents.
This relationship, impelled by intensifying cooperation in the security sphere and traditionally pushed by strategic needs, will continue to gain momentum, albeit some reservations could arise in grey areas such as US relations with China, Pakistan, US-India trade relations, and India’s Afghan role.
Heuristically, the US-India relationship is going to be in a good place — albeit no matter who won the 2020 election, simply because there is strong bipartisan support in Washington for US -India partnership, and there has been for several decades against the odds, US-India relations flourished under President Donald Trump.
It looks that a Biden Administration will be a less abrasive and more traditional partner for India and is likely to seek continuity in deepening ties with India, particularly as it seeks to work with partners around the world to tackle global challenges and compete with China.
Although the shared concerns over China and a strong rapport between the previous Trump Administration and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi insulated the relationship from much of the chaos other US partners experienced, India welcomed President Joe Biden’s “spectacular victory.”
Enthusiasm for Biden’s win signalled a hope in New Delhi that the new administration would cement the gains made over the past four years and pave the way for a closer US-India partnership.
Meanwhile, the Biden administration is sought to amplify US strength by banding more closely with allies across the region — vindicated by the latest talks in Alaska, US officials choreographed a series of meetings with allies as part of an effort to corral them as a bloc.
That consisted of a virtual meeting of Australia, India, Japan and the US, or the “Quad”; a previous visit by Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin to South Korea and Japan; and also manifested by Austin’s solo trip to New Delhi.
Former Indian Ambassador to the US Meera Shankar said the handling of China and sustaining a balance in Asia will be, perhaps, the most important international challenge for Biden, and countries like India will play an important role in this.
“I think the upward trajectory of our strategic relations will continue. There is a bipartisan consensus in the US to have a strong relationship with India, whether it is a Republican or a Democratic Administration”, Shankar said.
For the enthusiasts both in New Delhi and Washington, there could be a good start of US-India relations under the Biden Administration; for traditionalists, there could still be some grey areas— such as India, Kashmir policy, India’s role in Afghanistan, the fake news role of Indian media as surfaced by EU disinformation Lab, India’s overwhelming desire of acquiring more nuclear weapons — that could create some cross currents between the American and Indian policymakers.
And above all, the Biden Administration approaches Pakistan could also limit US -India cooperation. Biden may warm to Pakistan in hopes of receiving concessions in Afghanistan.
Any rapprochement between the United States and Pakistan is enviously viewed in New Delhi -thereby downgrading Washington’s reliability, as a security partner.
However, given the bipartisan consensus in Washington about the intensifying geopolitical and technological competition between China and the US, Delhi will be relatively confident that India will continue to be seen as a key security partner in Washington.
Also, the US emphasis on democratic institutions and norms across the world and that “a shared commitment to democratic values is the bedrock for the US -India relationship” did not find any space in the Indian readout of the Biden-Modi phone call. This could be an issue that may put India in an awkward situation.
In addition, as Washington has become increasingly concerned about China’s growing presence and assertiveness across Asia, the Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy, launched under the Trump Administration and developed in part as a way of recognising India’s growing role in the region seems likely to persist in some capacity under Biden.
The Biden Administration has also expressed a propensity to cooperate with China on transnational issues like climate change, non-proliferation and global health security.
And yet Biden Administration seems also determined on the human rights issue. For India, there is a flip side to the potential return of human rights as a cornerstone of US foreign policy.
Gone are the days when Biden stated his admiration for India’s diversity and inclusiveness, his campaign website and other members of the Democratic Party have expressed concerns over the potentially adverse human rights impact of some of the Indian government’s recent policies, such as the Citizenship Amendment Act and the clampdown on political freedom in Jammu and Kashmir since the revocation of its special status in August 2019.
Biden’s approach to US-India trade disputes is unclear. India seeks reinstatement of its privileged access as a developing country to the US market.
Trump abolished this benefit and Biden may not restore it without greater US access to the Indian market in return — exactly when New Delhi itself has become more protectionist.
More liberal US visa policies for Indian professionals could take the sting out of these trade problems.
The US and Indian visions of global order have important differences and there could be as many opportunities for irritations as perceived cooperation.
The current visit of the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to India, where concerns are glaringly shown over India’s discriminatory policies against the Indian minorities, and the Modi Administration’s HR violations in India-occupied Kashmir indicates that everything is not good between the two sides.
The currently upheld concern of the UNSC whereby it condemns India’s terrorist attack on the Dasu dam is also reflective of changing Washington’s stance towards New Delhi.
And most importantly, given the gravity of the Quartet strategy for Afghanistan, thereby involving the US, China, Russia, and Pakistan’s role in the future settlement of Afghanistan is a clear endorsement of the fact that India’s role is by no means welcomed in Afghanistan.
—The writer, an independent ‘IR’ researcher-cum-international law analyst based in Pakistan, is member of European Consortium for Political Research Standing Group on IR, Critical Peace & Conflict Studies, also a member of Washington Foreign Law Society and European Society of International Law.