Joe Biden finally emerged successful after a fiercely fought election by capturing a series of very close and nail-biting contests across the battleground states. He will be sworn in as the 46th President of the United States of America on 20 January 2021. For him, the job ahead is not easy as racial polarisation is at its peak in the pandemic-battered nation. With over 10 million cases and nearly 2,50,000 deaths, the US has been the hardest hit by the Covid-19 pandemic, its economy severely impacted with over 20 million jobs lost and manufacturing derailed. Domestic compulsions and priorities will take up much of Biden’s time. But as the US is still the world’s leading power both in the military and economic domains, and a security guarantor for much of the globe, an election there naturally garners a lot of worldwide attention. And India is no exception.
The India-US relationship has been on a steady upward trajectory over the past two decades, enjoying support among both the Democrats and Republicans. While we did surprisingly well with an unpredictable Trump over the past four years that saw massive gains in the defence and strategic partnership, it is safe to assume that this momentum will broadly continue under the Biden administration since most of the current US initiatives are derived from the Obama administration when Biden was Vice President. Earlier, as Chair of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he initiated India-specific legislation, enabling the passage of the US-India Civil Nuclear Cooperation Bill in the US House.
During his campaign, Biden said that one of the first things he would do if elected President is “get on the phone with the heads of state and say, ‘America’s back, you can count on us’”. In his speeches, he has talked of a return to the liberal multilateralism of the Obama administration, with a focus on rebuilding alliances, especially with Europe and in East Asia as he feels that longstanding traditional allies in these regions have had to bear the brunt of Trump’s abrasiveness. In the multilateral global domain, “climate change, nuclear proliferation, great power aggression, transnational terrorism, cyberwarfare, disruptive new technologies and mass migration” would garner the attention of the new administration “as none of them can be resolved by the United States, or any nation, acting alone,” Biden said in a 2019 speech on foreign policy.
Coming to India, there are three main dimensions to our relations with the US: political, economic and military. In the political domain, the key challenge for the US and India will be to deal with an aggressive and assertive China. Its overbearing posture has been developing for a few years and has now taken a particular turn that causes unease globally. Both the US and India realise that a key element of their Indo-Pacific strategy would be to ensure that China plays by the rules. But that seems unlikely. China is demonstrating its assertiveness not just towards India, but also in the Pacific region with Vietnam and Philippines, economically with Australia and others, and territorially with Taiwan. Much like 2008, China is taking advantage of a global situation that is in turmoil due to the Covid-19 pandemic. While Biden has said that “the United States does need to get tough with China” through a system of building a united front of “US allies and partners to confront Beijing’s abusive behaviours and human rights violations”, while simultaneously seeking its participation in addressing global challenges like climate change and North Korea, it remains to be seen if the new administration would be as forthcoming on China’s transgressions on India’s land borders as the Trump regime.
This congruence of interests will ensure that the focus on the Indo-Pacific will continue and deepen in some ways. The US Congress has created its own architecture for the country to work in the Indo-Pacific. Initial American engagement was limited to Southeast Asian countries but this has now extended to nations in India’s neighbourhood. The US Congress has suggested a ‘Pacific deterrence’ initiative in the region. This will help partners/allies in the Indo-Pacific stand up to China. If this initiative is operationalised (and there are high chances that it will be), it will be another significant milestone for the United States’ role in the Indo Pacific.
The 2+2 dialogue mechanism provides the platform for cooperation in the Indo-Pacific. India and the US are working on information sharing and this is being done in a faster and deeper way. COMCASA and BECA have proved to be significant enablers of real-time intelligence sharing and getting information on critical deployments. While this has primarily helped the Indian Navy, other services have also benefitted.
A natural corollary to this commonality of interests in the Indo-Pacific will be a strengthening and deepening of the Quad mechanism to include global issues such as counterterrorism and cyber security, and even non-traditional security challenges like climate and natural disasters.
As Vice President of the United States, President-elect Joe Biden believed that the India-US partnership is the defining one of the 21st century and generally subscribed to the view that the two countries are natural allies. While he will definitely work towards strengthening the scope of bilateral trade to realise his seven-year-old vision of taking it to $500 billion, which is today a little over $150 billion, India should be prepared to encounter frictions that seem to have become integral in trade relations between the two nations. As the new US administration tries to revive a battered economy, it will remain focused on its vision of ‘Making America Great Again’. The challenge for India would be to work in a manner to find common ground with this American vision and its own concept of ‘Make in India’.
There will be steady, incremental progress in the overall state of the India-US partnership, but there is no place for complacency. Both will have to overcome hurdles and find common ground to move the economic and strategic agenda forward as they seek to revive their respective economies that have been hit hard by Covid-19 and try to overcome challenges posed by an aggressive China.
Strategic Analyst based in New Delhi