Diplomats wary of India-US relations under Joe Biden

As President-elect Biden is set to take over, diplomats wary of India-US relations

Most experts agree that China will be the driving force behind how India’s relationship with Washington morphs in a Biden administration

Prime Minister Narendra Modi greets the then US Vice President Joe Biden in Washington DC. Credit: PTI File Photo

The Trump administration has significantly invested in its relationship with India over the past four years, seeing the country as a crucial partner in counterbalancing the rise of China.

Military cooperation and a personal friendship between President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India — both domineering nationalists — have pushed New Delhi and Washington closer.

Now, as President-elect Joe Biden is set to move into the White House, US diplomats, Indian officials, and security experts are resetting their expectations for relations between the world’s two largest democracies.

On one hand, experts said, Biden’s administration will most likely pay more attention to India’s contentious domestic developments, where Modi’s right-wing party has been steadily consolidating power and becoming overtly hostile toward Muslim minorities. Trump has largely turned a blind eye.

Others believe that the United States cannot afford to drastically alter its policy toward New Delhi because the United States needs its help to counter China and increasingly values India as a military and trade partner.

“The real opening between the United States and India began under President Clinton, it accelerated under President Bush, it continued under President Obama, and it’s accelerating again under our president, President Trump,” Stephen Biegun, the deputy secretary of state, said in October. “One of the constants in US-India relations has been that every presidential administration here in the United States has left the relationship in even better shape than the one it inherited.”

Most experts agree that China will be the driving force behind how India’s relationship with Washington morphs in a Biden administration.

“We need India for various reasons,” said Ashley J. Tellis, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. “Most important of which is balancing Chinese power in Asia.”

This year, 20 Indian soldiers were killed in the worst border clash between India and China in decades. As relations between New Delhi and Beijing soured, India strengthened its commitment to a multilateral partnership with the United States, India, Japan, and Australia — known as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or Quad.

China has castigated this forum as an Asian version of NATO, one that is directly aimed at counterbalancing its interests. India, leery of formal alliances and upsetting trade relations with Beijing, was initially hesitant to fully engage.

Biden, who once spoke optimistically of China’s emergence “as a great power,” has become increasingly tough on Beijing, and some analysts said his administration would most likely use the Quad as a way to ensure that the balance of power in the Indo-Pacific region does not tilt too far toward China.

“They’ll keep the Quad going,” said Richard Fontaine, chief executive of the Center for a New American Security, adding that the partnership had gone from largely being considered “a meeting in search of an agenda to something real that is doing things.”

But some Indian officials are concerned that the next administration will not be as tough on China as the current one and that Biden will adopt a more nuanced and less favorable position toward India, analysts said.

“If he’s seen as pursuing a softer approach with China, it will make New Delhi have second thoughts about a soft alliance,” said Brahma Chellaney, a professor of strategic studies at the Center for Policy Research, a think tank in New Delhi.

Biden’s administration will inherit a growing military relationship with India. In recent months, the United States and India have shared more intelligence and conducted more coordinated military training exercises. The military cooperation is closest among the navies of the two countries; Kenneth J. Braithwaite, the Navy secretary, visited India last week.

The United States has been trying to increase arms sales to India, but the country's history of buying weapons from nations such as France, Israel and Russia has complicated that effort. American officials are concerned about providing equipment to India if there is a risk that members of the Russian military or other foreign agents would then have access. American and Indian officials signed an agreement to share real-time geographical data through satellite images when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited India in October.

Despite the warming ties, though, Indian officials also worry that Biden might be less critical of Pakistan, the country's archrival, than Trump has been. Biden may even reach out to Islamabad for support as the United States draws down troops in Afghanistan. Early in his presidency, Trump suspended military aid to Pakistan, accusing it of supporting terrorists and giving the United States “nothing but lies and deceit.”

In contrast, Trump has said little about the increasing hostility toward Muslims in India and the divisive politics of Modi’s Hindu nationalist party. The Trump administration has kept largely quiet about Modi’s crackdown on Kashmir last year and the passage of a new, blatantly anti-Muslim citizenship law. And Modi’s recent pro-market agricultural policies have fueled a farmer rebellion that has snarled daily life in the capital and stirred up more anti-government feelings.

Both Biden — who is considered a strong friend of India since his days as a senator when he worked to approve the country’s landmark civil nuclear agreement in 2008 — and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris are likely to be more critical of India’s human rights record, both in private and in public, experts said.

Harris, whose mother was Indian and who has remained close to that side of her family, has already indicated that she is concerned about Kashmir, a predominantly Muslim area that has long been a flashpoint between India and Pakistan.

Biden’s campaign documents specifically called on the Indian government to “take all necessary steps to restore rights for all the people” in Kashmir. His campaign added that he was also “disappointed” in Modi’s citizenship law.

Some American activists want the Biden administration to go even further and warn Indian officials that discontent over some of its current policies could imperil how strong a partner India might be for the United States.

“Human rights first is equally important,” said Simran Noor, chairwoman of South Asian Americans Leading Together, an advocacy group in the United States. “The impacts of not addressing it now could lead to a lot worse conditions in the future.”

Another challenging issue is visas. Trump this year suspended H-1B visas for high-skilled workers, a major setback for US technology companies, which employ many Indians, and the wider Indian diaspora in the United States.

The two countries have also struggled to sign a comprehensive trade agreement, with talks hung up over imports of U.S. dairy products and medical devices such as coronary stents. After two decades of India loosening its trade restrictions, Western officials say the country has been tightening them over the past two years, embracing Modi’s push for a “self-reliant India.”

And many of Biden’s priorities — including climate change — will most likely require India’s cooperation, ensuring that New Delhi remains front of mind for Biden’s chief diplomats.

“There is no relationship today between any two countries that is as important as the relationship between the US and India,” said Nisha D. Biswal, President Barack Obama’s assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asian affairs. “Neither of us can go it alone.”

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