Since the US Presidential election, there is a debate on the new US administration’s policies and their impact on relations with India. Early indications confirm that close strategic relations between the two countries would continue under President Joe Biden. Over the years, the India-US relations have transformed from bilateral one to a strategic partnership.
The relationship has become increasingly multifaceted covering cooperation in areas of defence, trade, nuclear energy, science and technology including space, environmental and health. In 2020, the relationship was elevated to a comprehensive global strategic partnership.
Bipartisan support in US on several regional and international issues to India is available. Biden and his team have indicated their intention to maintain close ties between the two countries.
Even before taking over oath as the President, in a tele-conversation with the Indian PM, both reiterated their commitment to the Indo-US strategic partnership and discussed shared priorities and concerns including the pandemic, climate change, and cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region.
Biden while campaigning had stated that India was a natural partner of US.
India and the US have signed the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement for Geo-Spatial Cooperation (BECA), with which the two countries have inked all the all four foundational agreements to bolster defence ties.
These would push the two countries to advance the bilateral ties to next level. The US and its defence companies would like to further this relationship as arms sales have been a vital element in the US foreign policy. Given Biden’s anti-Russia orientation, he would push for replacement of Russia as the biggest defence partner of India. This ensures the transfer of high technological systems and equipment.
Biden’s nominee for the post of Secretary of State, Antony J Blinken in his testimony to the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, said that India had been “very much a bipartisan success story over successive administrations” be it from the Bill Clinton administration to George W.
Bush, then Barack Obama, Donald Trump, and that “this will continue to make progress under the Joe Biden government”. Significantly, he also made it clear that the strategic ties with India will remain strong, especially on the Indo-Pacific and there would be continuity from the Trump administration in dealing with China’s aggressive actions. The US strategic interests demand support for the free and open Indo-Pacific.
Similar views were also expressed by the new Secretary of Defence, Lloyd J Austin in his Senate confirmation. He stated that China was a ‘pacing challenge’. US concerns about countering China, which directly affects the US global role require closer strategic ties with India.
India is the only country in Asia, which can independently check the Chinese expansionist approach. This aspect has also been clearly indicated in the declassified papers of 2018. This reflects that there would not be any change on the US approach towards China’s expansionist policy and would remain concern on the Chinese aggressive moves.
Hence on China, any change in US approach is unlikely. Biden himself had shown a dislike for Xi, who was called a thug in the run up to his election. US has strategic interests in containing Chinese ambition for global domination. Taiwan remains an important ally. The Biden administration has already announced that it would focus on East Asian allies, which means China would be countered in the region around South China Sea.
The Chinese order to its Coast Guards issued on the 23 rd January 2021 to use all weapons on foreign ships in the South China Sea would escalate tension further between the US and China. The timing suggests that this was deliberately done to send a strong message to Biden administration to stop freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs).
Economic relations between the two countries have improved despite some irritants. US is India’s biggest export destination. It accounts for 16 percent in the exports of goods exports and 50 percent of IT and BPO services. Bilateral trade between the two countries was at $88.75 billion in 2019-20. In 2019, the US was the largest goods export market (17% share) for India and, in terms of goods import supplier, it was the third largest. In April-September 2020, the US was the second biggest source of FDI for India. It is likely that higher portfolio investments influenced by federal rates will flow into India.
Trump’s obsession with trade balance obsession resulted in creating tension with the withdrawal of Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) but they are likely to vanish with the US desire to de-couple from the Chinese dominated economic system. With US manufacturing firms moving out from China, US realises the need for an alternative supply line.
The Quad countries are pushing for this and have the support from the ASEAN countries. India and US are on the same page on these issues.
On Afghanistan, there may be some positive development. Biden administration has indicated that the US -Taliban deal would be reviewed to see if the Taliban are keeping their end of the bargain. The Afghan government, which was side-lined when the deal was finalised, have complained several times that the Taliban continue to violate the terms.
This would expose the role of Pakistan to a great extent and also of China to some extent which had deployed its spies to contact Haqqani faction. A review is in the interest of Kabul and India. The Pak-Afghanistan region remains the epicentre of terrorism and demands effective measures to neutralise the terrorists operating from this region.
Of course, human rights would remain a focus of the new administration. While India has dealt with such pressure in the past and can present its views, China and Pakistan, which are the worst abusers of human rights, would come under greater pressure. The Tibet Policy and Support Act 2020 was supported by members of both the parties in the US.
This was actually a reaction to the Xi’s policy for complete subjugation of the Tibetans by destroying their culture and religion and imposing the CCP’s ideology. Similarly, the atrocities committed on Muslims in Uyghurs have received attention of US policy makers and opinion shapers. On these issues there would be increased pressure on China.
On the whole, there would be no fundamental change in the Indo-US relations and approach towards the major issues concerning India including Indo-Pacific strategy and Chinese aggressive policy under the Biden administration.
There are indications that the relationship may deepen in the coming years as both need each other in the current security environment. There may be significant improvement in economic relations with India trying to become a manufacturing hub that could see a rise in US funding influx. India too would have to improve its performance in economic field by creating necessary infrastructure for attracting manufacturing firms.
However, the criticism against China would not be as loud and shrill as was during the Trump period. Biden administration’s approach would be more balanced driven by pragmatism. The US objective would remain to ensure that the strategic balance is not destroyed by China and for this it would use all leverages. Blinken in the course of his Senate nomination, expressed support for Trump’s aggressive confrontation of China.