The following article originally appeared in The Hindustan Times on August 26, 2020.So many major issues appear to be at stake in this November’s elections in the United States (US) — the recovery from Covid-19, race relations, unemployment, US-China competition, the composition of the Supreme Court — that Washington’s largely cooperative relations with India should normally be but an afterthought. But that did not prevent the Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, his running mate Kamala Harris, and several senior campaign advisers from participating in a virtual event on August 15 dedicated to India and Indian-Americans. While similar events had been held for other countries and constituencies, the content of the speeches and profile of the speakers were significant. The message was essentially two-fold: First, a Biden administration would look to preserve and further deepen the relationship with India and, second, that it would be particularly inclusive of Indian-Americans.
Although Biden is a veteran of the American foreign policy establishment, there had been questions about his campaign’s approach towards India amid competing priorities. In his August 15 address, Biden described the relationship with India as a “special bond” and recalled his role in securing the passage of the India-US civil nuclear agreement as a senior member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He pledged to continue “standing with India in confronting the threats it faces in its own region and along its border,” while also working with India to expand trade, tackle global challenges such as the climate crisis, and strengthen democracy. In his words, he hoped for an “honest conversation about all issues as close friends”.
Biden’s top foreign policy adviser Tony Blinken similarly highlighted the Obama-Biden administration’s “significant progress in strengthening relations between our countries,” including the Defence Technology and Trade Initiative (DTTI), the Major Defense Partner status for India to be treated on a par with close allies, and cooperation on the Paris Climate Agreement. “There’s probably no common global challenge we can solve without India,” he argued. By contrast, Blinken said, Trump’s approach to India has been “basically full of photo-ops and short on actual real demonstrable progress.”
The broad theme of building a more cooperative partnership with India is consistent with statements that Biden and his advisers have made elsewhere. For example, in an article in Foreign Affairs published in March, Biden effectively promised to build upon Trump’s approach to the Indo-Pacific. He argued that the US needed to work with democratic friends beyond North America and Europe, including Australia, Japan, South Korea, India, and Indonesia, “to advance shared values in a region that will determine the United States’ future.” In his policy platform — articulated in a document called “Joe Biden’s Agenda for the Indian American Community” — Biden pledged to “work with India to support a rules-based and stable Indo-Pacific region in which no country, including China, is able to threaten its neighbors with impunity.”
Biden’s outreach to Indian-Americans, and articulation of priorities concerning India, suggest that the differences between Democrats and Republicans are not as wide on strategic relations with India as they are on most other issues. As an incumbent, Donald Trump’s approach to India during a second-term is already somewhat discernible, or at least as discernible as possible for a leader known for his inconsistency. More favourably disposed following his visit to India earlier this year, Trump would be expected to continue to deepen the US strategic partnership with India as part of his administration’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy. This would potentially translate into even closer security coordination, deeper technological cooperation, and increased military interoperability, as part of several efforts that are currently underway.
Instead, the differences between Republicans and Democrats of relevance to India would manifest themselves more in bilateral ties. Biden has spoken in favour of greater two-way trade, cooperation on global health and the climate crisis, and improvements in immigration policies. He has also underscored the importance of democracy and pluralism, as part of a cemented partnership between the two countries. By contrast, a second Trump administration would be likely to redouble efforts at eliminating trade deficits and restricting immigration. The biggest targets of his trade policies would be China, Mexico, Germany, and Japan, while Mexico and Central America would bear the brunt of immigration crackdowns. But in the short-run, India could be adversely affected by both.
There had been widespread speculation about the prospect of a more difficult relationship between Washington and New Delhi in the event of a Democratic victory in November, one defined primarily by American disapproval over internal developments in India. This is unlikely. While less ambivalent than a Trump presidency, Biden and his advisers have now made it clear that their bigger priority is to build further upon the emerging strategic partnership with New Delhi. This should not be surprising. Whatever the outcome in November, the next US presidential term beginning in January will require the victor to deal urgently with a series of daunting challenges — a major public health crisis, a recessed national and global economy, and intensifying geopolitical competition in a more disorderly world.