Sustaining the Momentum in the Indo-Pacific: The US Presidential Elections and Priorities for Indo-US ties
When asked about bipartisan support for the Indo-US relationship, India’s Foreign Minister Dr. S. Jaishankar said, “[T]hink back at the last four American Presidents. Donald Trump, Barack Obama, George W Bush, and Bill Clinton. I’m sure you’d agree with me, you can’t find four people in the world less similar to each other, right, and yet the one thing on which actually, all four of them have agreed on is the importance of India and the need to strengthen that relationship. Maybe some of it is our charm, but I think a lot of it is also their thinking.”1 He explained, it has taken six decades to achieve this understanding, yet now that it is here, “both sides are making up for lost time.”2
Statements from US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have echoed similar sentiments: “US Presidents of both parties have seized the opportunity to seize closer ties. President Clinton ’s visit in 2000 set a real marker (…) and then President Bush inked a historic civil nuclear deal. More recently, President Obama granted India “Major Defense Partner” status, and supported India ’s quest for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council—a position that the United States continues to support. And under President Trump, we ’ve taken our defense cooperation to new heights, solidified our common vision for the Indo-Pacific, and taken a far tougher stand on Pakistan ’s unacceptable support for terrorism in the region”3 This recognition—both Republican and Democrat—is grounded in the acknowledgement of India’s expanding economic, political, and military profile and ability to increasingly shape global conversations.
Today the Indo-US relationship spans every conceivable domain from security to health care as envisaged in the Comprehensive Strategic Global Partnership.4 Come January 2021, the expectation is—as an American expert put it—that “the relationship will remain strong, warts and all, regardless of whether the next president is a Democrat (Biden) or Donald Trump 2.0.”5
We know that the trade front will continue to flare up periodically even as security and defense cooperation find greater clarity— especially in the Indo-Pacific theatre. There has been concern in India about bipartisan support changing due to heated US domestic debates on India’s internal decisions. For many Indian observers, the rhetoric seems to attach different metrics of standards to both parties in the relationship. Given that US domestic politics is currently experiencing its most divisive phase, New Delhi expects its friends in Washington to be more understanding of the vexing maze of concerns overwhelming nations globally—partly due to growing nationalism, threats to territorial sovereignty, and increasing polarization of societies now amplified in the post pandemic world. This curious pull and push of tensions, which persist despite the dominant logic of this relationship, will be inherited by the next administration in Washington and have to be managed by both sides, even as dousing small but raging forest fires will continue to define bilateral engagement.
While there is growing consensus on the centrality of this partnership, there is an acknowledgement that while the current relationship has taken two decades to reach where it is, the transformative changes have been brought to the fore under Prime Minister Modi and President Trump.6 When Trump traveled to India in February 2020, there was criticism that apart from arm sales and an energy deal there were few deliverables that the high optics event had achieved. Yet as observers in Delhi pointed out “the real story” was the big success of Modi in managing and engaging the mercurial Trump so well that he “travelled to India without any substantive deliverables.”7 Apart from the “open embrace” of the two leaders and their personal footprint on the growing relationship, one can identify three factors that have aided the current momentum in US-India ties.
The first remains converging interests in managing the China challenge. Trump and his administration both in speech and in strategic documents have identified China as the main strategic competitor, with rhetoric sharpening in the context of a polarized trade war. In the post COVID-19 era Washington has become vocal in urging its allies and partners to come together to call out Chinese behavior and push back against its unilateralism. India here, has repeatedly been identified as a key partner. Despite Modi’s many attempts to establish a multifaceted relationship with China, the loss of Indian soldiers in the Galwan Valley clash in the summer of 2020 and the continued tensions along the disputed border have made India reevaluate the relationship—an “inflection point” in ties with an unprecedented polarization of public sentiment against China. During this crisis American support—whether diplomatic cooperation, acquisition and deployment of US-made military hardware, reported intelligence sharing, or even rhetorical statements of support—made media headlines. It highlighted for India that Beijing views Sino-Indian ties increasingly through the lens of US-China competition with complete disregard for legitimate concerns of New Delhi.
Second and now more pronounced due to the current rift in Sino-Indian ties is the continued logic of a closer partnership with the United States to manage the China relationship. India’s approach to China is based on engagement, internal balancing and building capability, and external balancing and diversifying of partnerships. For the US, it could be argued that the strategic bet on India has acquired an urgency as it comes to terms with its own failure for turning a blind eye to Beijing’s exploitation of the fissures of the international system to aid its rise and acknowledging that its entire strategic calculus —at the risk of oversimplification— was based on wishful thinking.
Third, under Modi, the profile of the diaspora—especially the influential Indian-American community—has also become a game changer in the relationship. As C. Raja Mohan puts it, “It was one thing to move forward with the United States but entirely another to publicly flaunt the bonhomie with Washington.”8 Think of the optics of the Modi-Trump show at the Howdy Modi event to crowds in Houston or the Namaste Trump event held in a cricket stadium with 100,000 people in Modi ’s home state of Gujarat. The Indian-American community has become a battleground in the run up to the US presidential election. The Trump campaign has released a commercial featuring footage of Modi9 and Trump from the Howdy Modi event reportedly to persuade voters who have traditionally voted Democrat to switch loyalties.10 The clip features snippets from Trump’s Ahmedabad address where he says, “America loves India, America respects India […] we have come to know the splendor of the four million Indian Americans, they are truly spectacular people.” The calculus on both sides is reflecting these priorities.
If Biden-Harris come calling, India will expect both continuity and stability
Where does India stand with a Biden administration? Much of the expert speak coming from America has sought to bust the narrative that a Trump presidency would be better for India.11 Biden is no stranger to India. As a veteran of the Senate Foreign Relations committee, he has a record of advocating stronger ties with India.12 In his 2020 campaign Biden has highlighted his crucial role in spearheading bipartisan congressional support for the Indo-US nuclear agreement of 2005.13 India’s former ambassador to the US recounts how Biden along with his Republican counterpart, committee chairman Richard Lugar, piloted a 85-12 vote, that allowed for further negotiations on the breakthrough nuclear deal.14 “In the intervening two years, which saw several challenges to the deal in both countries, Biden had steadfastly heralded support in the US Senate, particularly from opposing members in his own party. This included senators Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, who were influenced by concerns of the non-proliferation lobby.”15 Even before that, Biden had pushed President Bush to lift sanctions against India after the nuclear tests of May 1998, writing in 2001, “Today, the economic sanctions against India serve to stigmatize rather than stabilize,” and he was hopeful that if the sanctions are removed “India will respond with reciprocal acts of goodwill in non-proliferation and other arenas.”16
Speaking at the Mumbai Stock Exchange on July 24, 2013, during his visit as vice president, Biden reiterated Obama ’s view of the India-US relationship “as a defining partnership in the century ahead.”17 On the occasion of India’s Independence Day this year, Biden assured supporters that he would “stand with India” and his administration will “confront the threats (India) faces in its own region and along its border,” and there will be no tolerance for terrorism, cross border or otherwise.”18
Biden also said he would lift the temporary suspension of H-1B visas imposed by Trump and hinted at a more inclusive and generous immigration policy—all of which are big positives for India.19
He stayed in the news in India for picking Kamala Harris—the first Black and Indian-American woman on a major presidential party ticket—as his running mate.20 As former colleagues of G. Balachandran—Harris’s uncle—himself an expert on nuclear issues, we were amusingly witness to (Bala) getting hunted down for a reaction on her nomination.21 Indians were now invested in the Biden-Harris story, sending the Indian media into a tizzy.22
But with media headlines also came comparisons of Trump 2.0 vs Biden, given Modi and Trump’s impressive strategic scorecard.23 Worries over Biden’s comments on India’s internal decisions on Article 370 and the reorganization of J&K and the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) were aired. There is also uncertainty over the influence of the progressive wing of the Democratic party, extremely critical of India, who despite repeated attempts by New Delhi to impress upon the rationale of its decisions, were seen as being “ignorant” and “indifferent.”24 Yet many in New Delhi also acknowledge that the Trump administration has riled India up from time to time, especially on Kashmir.25
Given that Biden has put India’s key security concerns—on managing China, intolerance for cross border terrorism, building further on convergence in the Indo-Pacific, and returning to pre-Trump era climate change discussions—front and center in his vision for bilateral relations, there is a sense that the current trajectory of ties will prevail. Additionally, both countries have over many decades cultivated an understanding of managing public discourse to ensure differences do not overshadow the trajectory of ties. As a veteran journalist, quoting her source from the Biden campaign put it, “most of the battles will be on domestic policy and Biden has already drawn some red lines for the progressives. He is equally capable to shutting anti-India chatter down. […] More importantly, Biden is old school and moderate.”26
“Thinking Big” in India-US ties: Structural challenges and honest conversations
Biden’s candid assessment that “India needs to be a partner in the region for our safety ’s sake and quite frankly for theirs,” would be welcome in New Delhi, which is enthusiastic about honest conversations in the relationship.27 Foreign Minister Jaishankar, who is actively promoting a very clear articulation of India’s view of the world, is as blunt when he says India-US ties need to rise above the regular irritants and “think big.”28 Despite the big picture being clearly visible there is reticence on both sides.
Aligned on specific issues but not an ally
“I think the US really has to learn to work with a more multipolar world with more plurilateral arrangements, go beyond alliances with which it has grown up in the last two generations,” said Jaishankar at the Ideas Summit hosted by the US-India Business Council in July.29 That sums up the Indian point of view on framing the relationship. A former state department official and India expert, Alyssa Ayres, told audiences in a discussion as to what exactly bogs Washington down—"there is sometimes in D.C a confusion between a partnership and an alliance. I think it’s that element of a formal alliance that India is not interested in.” She points out that “sometimes comments from members of congress, proposing that we should be thinking about our allies including India” create an “unacceptable level of expectation on India,” which could be counterproductive.30 Ayres and other India hands have recommended an approach that would account for significant convergence but also allow for divergence on interests which are not aligned—like India’s positions on Russia and Iran, which despite being third country issues often impact bilateral ties.31
Indian officials often make the point that it would be an unreasonable expectation from the US to want India to distance itself in its comprehensive and multilayered relationship with Russia. The S-400 missile systems is a case in point. There exists an impression that despite the enormous growth in US defense exports to India, any attempt by India to diversify its options is interpreted as negative and invites US pressure. The understanding is that through arms sales the US aims “to develop a network of states that would integrate into a broader US-controlled ecosystem of technologies and intelligence, and, would collectively share the burden of managing a US-led security architecture.”32 Such insistence is incompatible with India’s vision of a multipolar order and undermines its ability to deploy its assets independently based on its own requirements.
Just as the United States balances its relationship with Pakistan in light of its Afghanistan strategy, India needs Russia for its strategic interests.33 Apart from keeping up the inventory of spare parts for Russian equipment, New Delhi recognizes Moscow’s defense ties with key countries in the Indo- Pacific including Vietnam and Indonesia and the role it can play in limiting Chinese actions both bilateral and potentially in cooperation with India. India’s insistence on a Russian rethink on the Indo-Pacific concept is also aimed at its own interests in the emerging geopolitics of the Arctic and sustainability of the relationship, given Russia growing ties with China, Pakistan, and Iran. Meanwhile analysts have “dispelled the myth that policy differences over Iran are a major impediment to the US-India bilateral relationship.” Pointing to India’s accommodation of US demands for a reduction of Iranian imports with investments in US energy markets and seeking more flexibility in India’s interests in the Chabahar port project, it is argued that Washington should recognize that “in practice, India has proved willing to meet the United States halfway” and Indian investments on connectivity will in the future “limit Chinese influence and compliment US interests in Afghanistan.”34 So far on contentious issues both sides have come to see reason, but this wrangling has taken a lot of energy, which underscores the need to temper expectations.
The burden of great expectations: Asking too much of the US-India partnership?
The bilateral relationship may have overcome “hesitations of history,” but legacy issues around India’s conceptualization of strategic autonomy and non-alignment obfuscate the relationship periodically. Emerging Indian scholarship has made a persuasive case that both the concept and practice of non-alignment, especially in the relationship with Washington, was intended to “seek-out material needs—such as economic and military assistance—while at the same time ensuring that India remained free to pursue its own foreign policy goals.35 This is exemplified by Prime Minister Vajpayee’s speech in New York in 1998, where he not only spoke of the US and India as “natural allies,” but also ‘insisted that India was prepared to place its relationship with the US’ ‘on equal footing’ based on the ‘mutuality of interests’ between the two countries.”36 These caveats underlined “India ’s nuanced approach to international politics, where both ideational and material assertiveness made it imperative for Indian leaders to guard against any indication of subservience.”37 India’s foreign minister writes, “India cannot give any other nation a veto on its policy options. This is particularly so in a world when all significant players are trying to be as open-ended on their own choices.”38
This conversation gets testier when impatience with the relationship gives way to perceptions that Washington has over invested in India and New Delhi has not delivered on the strategic bet that the US had hoped for.39 Experts have often written about private conversations with US government officials and specialists which “reveal frustration and concern over the supposed pattern of US concessions and Indian shortcomings—criticized as “all talk and no show.”40 On the other hand Indian policymakers are said to be as exasperated with the burden of great expectations when there is so much unpredictability with the US on a range of issues including shortfalls in technology transfers and investment, frictions over trade, and a South Asia policy that prioritizes an exit strategy from Afghanistan and rapprochement with Pakistan, ignoring India’s sensitivities.41 On trade for instance while acknowledging US expectations of moving the relationship into “high gear,” India has argued that Washington needs to understand that India has also changed and acquired capabilities in domains that may not have existed in the past, so conversations need to reflect that.42 As well-wishers of the relationship put it “ultimately, the greatest obstacle to a deeper partnership is wishful thinking about what it can achieve.”43 Tempering expectations on the scope and limitations of the relationship will be crucial to efforts of all administrations.
US-China-India: the complicated triangle
For India to realize its aspirations, keeping the momentum going in the Indo-US relationship while managing the China relationship from deteriorating further remains imperative. Yet China alone cannot drive bilateral ties, if India and the US want to truly be strategic partners. In her book Fateful Triangle, Tanvi Madan uses archives to make the case that historically the highs in the India-US relationship have depended on variables around China, that is to say partnerships strengthened when China appeared to pose a threat, however, only when they agreed on (a) the nature of the threat, (b) the urgency of the threat, and (c) how to deal with the threat.44 When they disagreed on threat perceptions, as well as on what approach to take toward China, the differences had an adverse impact.45 While there is no refuting the broadening scale and depth of the relationship, India will be closely watching Biden’s approach in dealing with China.
Despite Biden promising a tough stand on China, concerns that renewed engagement with Beijing on global issues like climate change would come at the expense of Asian neighbors remain.46 In the recent standoff with India in Ladakh it became apparent that for Beijing parity with India in the American strategic calculus is unacceptable. Hyphenation with India is unpalatable and elicits thwarting what it sees an unholy alliance. For Washington the hyphenation has served to preserve the balance of power and influence in the region, while promoting its perception of a US-led but shared vision of a free, open, and rules-based order in the region. But if Biden reimagines the US approach to China, US-India ties to sustain the current momentum will have to institutionalize the relationship further to manage these anxieties. Shared values across the social, political, and economic domains will continue to bind India and the US, but the slightest revision of positions especially on Pakistan, which India sees as part of India’s China challenge, will have the potential to derail ties.
Reorienting bureaucracies to deepen the relationship
Indo-US ties still suffer from a lack of practical coordination between bureaucracies. Those who have served in Washington have argued that if the United States is keen on building cooperation with India to balance interests in Asia then there is a need for reorienting the American bureaucracy to deal with a changing region, which is no longer neatly bifurcated between India and China.47 They also point out that Washington’s bureaucracy is still heavily tilted towards East Asia and this induces a bias particularly given the heavily compartmentalization of decision-making related to South Asia and East Asia.48 Going beyond the rhetoric, there is also little evidence to show of any meaningful trade-offs the US has had to consider between its India and China equities so far.49 Given this scenario and now the increasing canvas of shared concerns in the Indo Pacific, it is time to push for more synergy.50 While the current global mood against China and growing institutionalization both in New Delhi and Washington of specific divisions and personnel dedicated to the Indo-Pacific may offer a course correction, interaction at all levels from strategic to tactical needs to be regularized argue practitioners.51
US-India ties and the Indo Pacific: Sustaining the momentum post the COVID-19 storm
Convergence in managing the China challenge has found maximum synergies in the Indo-Pacific region with the Trump administration deepening the edifice of cooperation laid down during the Obama-Biden years.52 US Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun talking about US strategy in the Indo-Pacific emphasized that Washington requires “India standing by its side.”53 The scale of economic and security cooperation required and the leadership shown by India to support a shared vision for the Indo-Pacific “in its own right” explain why it is “a centerpiece to the strategy”54 Bilateral strategic ties gained momentum once the US realized that “their relationship with India required a new type of partnership,” and it meant that “the United States would have to put some big ideas on the table that it had rarely—if ever—offered any partner.”55 US efforts to back India’s entry into the club of declared nuclear powers, facilitating transfer of defense technologies that India could use to build up its own military industrial base and US efforts in helping New Delhi expand its network of partners especially in the Indo-Pacific region—have been key markers of this relationship. These partnerships, New Delhi hopes, will not just strengthen its capabilities but also collectively dissuade Chinese adventurism in the region. The US has also backed India’s longstanding demand for a seat at the UN Security Council, and thwarted China ’s attempt to put India’s decision on the reorganization of J&K into the UN.
During the ongoing border crisis with China, bipartisan US support for a resolution that slammed Chinese aggression against India and growing territorial assertiveness made an impact on Indian public sentiment. According to Lisa Curtis, the US national security council ’s senior director for South and Central Asia, “India’s resolve to stand up to China” and demonstration of “will and capabilities” with a slew of economic measures like the banning of Chinese apps and intense scrutiny of Chinese investments in strategic sectors “was being watched closely by countries in the (IPR) region” and would encourage them.56 Arguing that the US was ready to take more risks in its relationship with China, Curtis spoke of the $3 billion US-Indian arms deal, which saw India buying 24 MH-60 Romeo Seahawk helicopters and six AH-64E Apache attack helicopters during Trump’s visit, and an agreement to strengthen quadrilateral consultations with Australia and Japan, as a cornerstone of Trump ’s regional strategy.57 These indicators—though not comprehensive— rightly reflect the tight military and strategic embrace between India and the US in the larger canvas of the Indo-Pacific. However, these need to be unpacked further to understand why the new administration will need to work harder to overcome an uneven trajectory of relations.
First, nuance the discourse on Indo-US defense and security ties
It is often described as a sweet spot which is getting sweeter and if you go by the sheer growth in arms sales you understand why. Indo-US defense trade has grown from 1 billion to 18 billion dollars (2008-2019)—and most of the procurements from C-130 J Hercules aircraft, C-17 Globemasters, P-8 Poseidon aircraft as well as the AH-64 Apache and CH-47 Chinook helicopters boosted Indian defense capabilities, particular against China.58 Apart from a $3 billion arms deal during the Trump visit, the US intent to sell to India a package of Harpoon air launched missiles and lightweight torpedoes worth $155 million is said to equip India to discourage any adventurism from Beijing in the Indian Ocean. The new acquisitions are to be integrated with existing P-81 maritime reconnaissance aircraft for anti-surface warfare missions in defense of critical sea lanes, while also enhancing the Indian Navy ’s inter-operability with US and other like-minded forces in the region.59 With a 2+2 ministerial dialogue and key foundational agreements defense cooperation is scaling new heights. The Industrial Security Annex (ISA) that seeks to bolster India’s indigenous defense development and encourage participation of American defense firms in “Make in India” projects via the India-US Defence Technology and Trade Initiative (DTTI) and the India-US General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) that eased transfer of high-level technology and safeguarding of classified military information are all key developments.
India and the US now conduct comprehensive tri-service exercises, have flexed their muscle in the maritime domain with coordinated sailing with Japan and the Philippines in the South China Sea in 2019, and have undertaken a show of solidarity with the USS Nimitiz, the world’s largest nuclear powered super carrier joining the Indian navy in the Bay of Bengal in a PASSEX protocol against the backdrop of Chinese escalation in the Himalayas. In the Quadrilateral dialogue in Tokyo the agenda of discussions reportedly features possibility of Australia’s inclusion in India’s Malabar exercise along with Japan, and the United States. The US, which has reoriented its geographic understanding of the Indo-Pacific region to reflect India’s imagination—described as stretching from “California to Kilimanjaro” with a renamed Indo-Pacific Command—has decided to place a liaison officer at the Indian Navy ’s Information Fusion Centre (IFC) for the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). In response India too is considering the US request for posting liaison officers at the US Indo-Pacific Command (USINDOPACOM) and the US Special Operations Command (USSOCOM).
Despite these developments, US practitioners argue that the military partnership has not yet developed “habits of cooperation” that the US enjoys with close partners and lacks the tangible impact on core concerns.60 Two reasons are highlighted: 1) security cooperation is adapting specifically to Indian requirements, leading to structural ambiguity raising different expectations;61 and 2) Washington has understood that New Delhi is only looking to consult and coordinate on defense matters of shared concern but prefers to “operate in parallel rather than jointly achieving the benefits of cooperation while preserving strategic autonomy”—which the US still finds hard to accept. A case in point is the very interpretation of interoperability; for the US it is in the depth of engagement, while in India’s point of view, it is an exercise in trust building with foreign partners and focuses on breadth and wider engagement in very simple terms.62
This balance of expectations will need to be managed as both sides choose to cooperate on core security concerns. A degree of military dependence while aligning on specific issues remains central to New Delhi’s approach. To be clear, the US too, fatigued by “endless wars,” is reprioritizing its resources and interests and hasn’t pushed an offer of military alliance on the table. Overselling the defense relationship without nuancing evolving perspectives will be detrimental.
Second, Indo-Pacific frameworks of cooperation need to be fluid
US officials have been vocal in describing India as a “trusted” partner in the Indo-Pacific region and reinvigorating the Quad as central to “like-minded democracies in the Indo-Pacific.” India which has quietly raised the scope of involvement in the quadrilateral dialogue with regular meetings has often chosen to describe it as yet another mechanism to coordinate engagement on mutual issues of interest among like-minded countries. It has been sensitive to not just Chinese accusations of an “Asian NATO,” but also to skepticism from Southeast Asian nations. However all nations in the Quad enjoy a steadily deepening strategic partnership with growing numbers of forums for dialogue across the military, diplomatic, strategic, technological, and economic domains that have ensured a congruence of vision and coordination of future engagements. There has been an exponential growth in engagement between the Quad members as well as partners like Europe, France, and Indonesia. In the immediate aftermath of the COVID-19 crises we have seen the expansion of regular consultations within this framework to include countries like South Korea, New Zealand, and Vietnam and separate engagement with Brazil and Israel. The US and Australia after their 2+2 dialogue mentioned India as a key partner alongside the “Five Eyes Partners” to strengthen “a shared vision” for the Indo-Pacific region. India has been invited by the United Kingdom to join talks on a D10, pursuing the idea of a club of 10 democratic nations to find ways to avoid reliance on Huawei for 5G technology. Trump has spoken of expanding the G7 grouping to include India, Australia, Russia, and South Korea, and Joe Biden wants to organize a global summit for democracies. It would be pragmatic not to impose institutionalization. The dominant view from India is to “strengthen the Quad itself and flexibly engage different partners at different places. That should be the strategy for the near term, rather than going too far ahead and building unsustainable costs in the future.”63
This ties in with New Delhi’s assessment that “as alliances erode and the US steps back from major international commitments, the resulting anxiety may be wider than we think.”64 Japan and Australia reflect these anxieties.65 For Japan, a US tough on allies amplifies concerns about “maintaining the credibility of the alliance.” For Australia the focus is to strengthen engagement with key partners to balance US retrenchment. In Southeast Asia too despite the US’s new policy on the South China Sea, which rejects China ’s maritime claims as inconsistent with UNCLOS, there is little enthusiasm to go beyond rhetoric. Many nations are worried that the US position change is less related to upholding international law and has more to do with Washington trying to escalate tensions with China. ASEAN countries through their vision for the Indo-Pacific have clearly indicated that they see no incentive in antagonizing China. With India ’s absence in RCEP and the US breaking from TPP, pandering to ASEAN centrality without substance will reflect poorly on the countries driving the Indo-Pacific narrative. While Biden has repeatedly stressed a course correction in the treatment of allies and partners, nations across the region which have spent considerable effort in diversifying partnerships, competing, and engaging with China will not be quick to fall back to pre-Trump policies.
Three, the economic logic to the Indo-Pacific needs to work: Global supply chains, technology, connectivity, and partnerships
India and US will have to acknowledge the reality that the economic consensus in the Indo-Pacific has found less traction than the strategic consensus. In the post-COVID-19 era health, trade, technology, and connectivity will become the core tenets of foreign policy engagement. While India’s efforts to resist Chinese expansionism through its principled stand against the BRI or decision to walk out of RCEP are appreciated now, India is also pushing for cooperation among like-minded countries to find alternatives to Beijing’s domination of global supply chains, conceding that India has not been able to take advantage of the diversification of supply chains out of China like Vietnam and Indonesia due to a lack of capacity and lagging structural reforms. Americans seem to be keen on adopting a “China plus one” strategy with India to bring Indian suppliers into low risk, high reward programs while maintaining the Chinese manufacturing base. Pompeo says the Trump administration wants to “mesh the supply chains that both countries (India and the US) have access to,” especially in areas crucial for national security. Experts believe autos, machinery, textiles, and pharmaceuticals have been India ’s strengths in product exports and these will see rapid gains. In other areas India will need to build a strong manufacturing base to increase its export potential. US experts have also commented that India ’s inclusion to APEC as a signal of good faith in Indian priorities should be championed. The new administration needs to prioritize this.
With Biden talking about continued technology decoupling from China, avenues for cooperation with India and coordinating with Quad countries and partners can also be key to ensuring common standards.66 As geopolitics dominates the 5G debate, India is hoping to spur large-scale electronics manufacturing and attract fresh investments after the government announced three specific policy roll outs to facilitate plug and play from Indian markets.67 Google, Facebook and a number of private equity companies have invested over $10 billion in Reliance Industries Jio platform already. Track 1.5 platforms are holding a US-India 5G dialogue. To cooperate on 6G and 7G technologies will require New Delhi to be inside the room when rule-making systems on technology and telecommunications are being thrashed out.
On connectivity, alternatives to Chinese BRI investments have come in a piecemeal fashion. India ’s foreign ministry has been pressing private industry to participate in projects financed under Indian development assistance to serve two ends: showcase India ’s expertise in project planning, design, and execution, and assist Indian industry in projecting itself as technologically sound partners of developing countries in diverse sectors to ensure that enhanced connectivity underwrites exports of goods, services, standards, and norms. While India has put many ideas on the table, critics will be watching closely for speedy implementation. Synergizing with the US Blue Dot initiative, which rates the sustainability of international projects, along with the Development Finance Corporation and Infrastructure Transaction and Assistant Network (ITAN) could be substantial. Delivery will outweigh rhetoric and reassure smaller nations of transparent financing alternatives to China ’s BRI. Further coordination with Japan and Australia could sustain the effort. US support for Indian-initiated multilateral fora like International Solar Alliance, Coalition for Disaster Resilient Infrastructure, and Indo Pacific Oceans Initiative would anchor the relationship.
Four, Non-traditional security issues can be game changers: Health, Climate Change, Energy
Biden’s vision for managing global pandemics, climate, and clean energy has the scope to redefine the relationship and incentivize wider engagement in the region. India ’s COVID-19 diplomacy has projected health as a strategic asset establishing it as the emerging market for and with a leading ecosystem for health care. Large-scale manufacture of PPE kits and ventilators, training of healthcare professionals, collaboration in digital innovation in health, and procuring regulatory clearances for modern and traditional Indian medicines, aside from developing a cutting edge in vaccine research and supply are leading policy innovation. The Indo-US cooperation according to India’s envoy to Washington, is crucial to confront health challenges posed by the pandemic, including future vaccine development and distribution. It has helped to support joint research and incubate start-up engagements.
Calling climate change the biggest threat of our times, Biden has promised to rejoin the Paris agreement and a $2 trillion plan to galvanize action. For India and other developing countries questions will continue to arise on historic emissions and if developed countries led by the US would finance Indian efforts to mitigate climate change. Helping India transit to a clean energy economy will require a “lot of work on the diplomatic as well as technocratic side.”68
India has been thinking about global energy partnerships in renewable energy, clean-tech, energy efficiency, and petroleum and natural gas. Indo-US energy cooperation has been a big win for the relationship with India becoming the fourth largest international market for US crude oil and the fifth largest for US liquefied natural gas. Two energy agreements of note—helping India strengthen its natural gas distribution network and a commitment from the US International Development Finance Corporation to establish a $600 million financing facility for renewable energy project—were signed during the Trump visit. Indian firms are said to have invested up to $1 billion in US shale gas assets to aid New Delhi lessen its dependence on Iran and the wider Middle East. Even as Biden reengages with Iran, the Indo-US energy partnership is poised to grow.
Five, South Asia is a key battleground
When the fallout of deteriorating Sino-US ties manifested itself in the polarizing “ ‘geopolitics of gratitude” over medical assistance globally, India ’s COVID-19 diplomacy was silently in play. The projection of India ’s abilities in times of global crises was subtle yet effective.69 India activated the SAARC virtual forum to coordinate a regional response and provide assistance, committing $10 million to the COVID-19 emergency fund, undertook HADR missions to evacuate people and operationalized its Indo Pacific-strategy of Security and Growth for all by deploying naval ships with medical assistance, essential supplies, and in some cases Rapid Response Medical teams to countries who requested assistance. India’s ability and commitment to being the first responder in the strategic Indian Ocean built on its effort to be the preferred strategic partner in the region.70 India has welcomed US interest in its priority theatre in the Indo Pacific, as US looks to increase engagements with partners in South Asia—Sri Lanka, Maldives, Bangladesh, and Nepal. Unlike the past when India has been cagey about the presence of extra-regional powers in the Indian Ocean, today it is welcoming involvement of like-minded nations even in strategically sensitive areas like the Andaman and Nicobar Islands to resist Chinese infringement and to offer an alternative source of infrastructure development and connectivity initiatives. With the US-Maldives Defence Cooperation agreement, more robust ties with Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, the US has joined India in coordinating efforts in pursuit of shared objectives. This momentum should provide deliverables to stimulate the “wider domestic debates about the long-term costs of China ’s influence.”71
Biden back in 2006 said that if the US and India are the closest friends and partners by 2020, the world will be a safer place. The current political polarization in the run up to the US elections, does not seem to be reassuring. However, for both New Delhi and Washington, it will be imperative to not just continue the trajectory of ties but also to focus on the nature of relationship we are building.
*Shruti Pandalai is a Fellow at the MP-Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi, working on India’s foreign and security policy. Feedback is welcome. @shrutipandalai.
1. “External Affairs Minister ’s interview at India Global Week 2020,” July 12, 2020, https://www.mea.gov.in/interviews.htm?dtl/32821/External_Affairs_Ministers_interview_at_India_Global_Week_2020%23:~:text=Ms%2520Edie%2520Lush%252C%2520Moderator%253A%2520Welcome,Dr%2520Jaishankar%252C%2520India%27s%2520Foreign%2520Minister.
3. “Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo’ at the India Ideas Summit and 44th Annual Meeting of the US-India Business Council,” June 12, 2019, US Department of State, https://www.state.gov/secretary-of-state-michael-r-pompeo-at-the-india-ideas-summit-and-44th-annual-meeting-of-the-u-s-india-business-council/.
4. Joint Statement: Vision and Principles for India-US Comprehensive Global Strategic Partnership , February 25, 2020, https://mea.gov.in/bilateral-documents.htm?dtl/32421/Joint_Statement_Vision_and_Principles_for_IndiaUS_Comprehensive_Global_Strategic_Partnership#:~:text=Partnerships%20Development%20Partnerships-,Joint%20Statement%3A%20Vision%20and%20Principles%20for%20India,US%20Comprehensive%20Global%20Strategic%20Partnership&text=As%20India%20works%20to%20acquire,procurement%20and%20technology%20transfer%20purposes.
5. Michael Kugelman, quoted in “Who ’s better for India: Donald Trump or a Democrat leader?” The Print, February 6, 2020, https://theprint.in/talk-point/whos-better-for-india-donald-trump-or-a-democrat-leader/360656/.
6. Ashley J. Tellis, “The Surprising Success of the US-Indian Partnership: Trump and Modi Have Deepened Defense Cooperation Against the Odds,” Foreign Affairs, February 20, 2020,https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/india/2020-02-20/surprising-success-us-indian-partnership.
7. Harsh V. Pant, “ A new normal has now been set for India-US relations,” Mint, February 26 2020, https://www.livemint.com/opinion/columns/opinion-a-new-normal-has-now-been-set-for-india-us-relations-11582733654341.html.\\
8. C Raja Mohan, “India ’s pivot to the United States,” East Asia Forum, May 19, 2020, https://www.eastasiaforum.org/2020/05/19/indias-pivot-to-the-united-states/.
9. Yashwant Raj, “Donald Trump woos Indian-American voters, with clips from Howdy Modi,” Hindustan Times, August 24, 2020, https://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/trump-woos-indian-american-voters-with-clips-from-howdy-modi/story-eUvWEsra7WkhYnZEkXIzGO.html.
10. Elizabeth Roche, “Trump releases video featuring Modi in a bid to woo Indian-Americans,” Mint, August 24, 2020, https://www.livemint.com/news/world/trump-releases-video-featuring-modi-in-a-bid-to-woo-indian-americans-11598237390217.html.
11. Raymond E. Vickery, Jr. “Joe Biden Is Better for India – If Democratic Values Are What Matters Most in US-India Ties,” The Diplomat, September 11, 2020, https://thediplomat.com/2020/09/joe-biden-is-better-for-india-if-democratic-values-are-what-matters-most-in-us-india-ties/.
14. Arun K Singh, “Trump or Biden — who is better for India? The answer lies in a 14-year-old dream,” The Print, September 8, 2020, https://theprint.in/opinion/trump-or-biden-who-is-better-for-india-the-answer-lies-in-a-14-year-old-dream/498074/.
16. George Gedda, “Biden Pushes End to India Sanctions,” AP, August 27, 2001, https://apnews.com/article/7db49bd4371acb8b387e8a46f81f6b40.
18. “Joe Biden’s Agenda For The Indian American Community,” note 8.
20. “Joe Biden praises Indian-origin Senator Kamala Harris in his nomination acceptance speech,” The New Indian Express, August 21, 2020, https://www.newindianexpress.com/world/2020/aug/21/joe-biden-praises-indian-origin-senator-kamala-harris-in-his-nomination-acceptance-speech-2186452.html.
21. Rezaul Laskar, “Kamala Harris’ political views shaped by her Indian mother: Uncle,” Hindustan Times, August 12, 2020, https://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/kamala-harris-political-views-shaped-by-her-indian-mother-uncle/story-DHkN8tPAtxTU3npbA2ptyI.html.
22. “India and the historic nomination of Kamala Harris,” The New Indian Express, August 22, 2020, https://www.newindianexpress.com/opinions/2020/aug/22/india-and-the-historic-nomination-of-kamala-harris-2186815.html.
23. Shishir Gupta, “Is Donald Trump better for India or Joe Biden? S Jaishankar answers,” Hindustan Times, September 9, 2020, https://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/is-donald-trump-better-for-india-or-joe-biden-s-jaishankar-answers/story-zsH4lPeRQOxSLSuu7ZqfcK.html.
24. Seema Sirohi, “Biden speaks to India,” Observer Research Foundation, July 6, 2020, https://www.orfonline.org/expert-speak/biden-speaks-to-india-69198/.
25. “Trump wants to ‘mediate’ on Kashmir issue, PM Modi did not ask US President, says India,” Mint, July 23, 2019, https://www.livemint.com/news/world/trump-wants-to-mediate-on-kashmir-issue-pm-modi-did-not-ask-us-prez-says-india-1563849289929.html.
27. “If elected, will revoke H1-B visa suspension: Joe Biden,” The Hindu, July 2, 2020, https://www.thehindu.com/news/international/if-elected-bolstering-ties-with-india-will-be-high-priority-joe-biden/article31967851.ece.
32. Zorawar Daulet Singh, “India can ’t continue to overlook Trump ’s diplomatic slights. Time to redefine ties sensibly,” The Print, January, 27, 2020, https://theprint.in/opinion/india-cant-overlook-trump-diplomatic-slights-time-to-redefine-us-ties/354732/.
33. Tanvi Madan, “An Indian Perspective,” Asan Forum, November 4, 2019, https://asanforum.shoplic.site/an-indian-perspective-2/.
34. Sumitha Narayanan Kutty “Dealing with Differences: The Iran Factor in India-US Relations,”
Asia Policy, January 30, 2019, https://www.nbr.org/publication/dealing-with-differences-the-iran-factor-in-india-u-s-relations/.
35. Rudra Chaudhuri, Forged in Crisis: India and the United States since 1947 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), pp. 271.
36. Ibid. p. 17.
38. S. Jaishankar, The India Way – Strategies for an Uncertain World (New Delhi: Harper Collins, 2020), p. 32.
39. Robert D. Blackwill and Ashley J. Tellis, “The India Dividend: New Delhi Remains Washington ’s Best Hope in Asia,” Foreign Affairs, September/October 2019.
40. Sameer Lalwani and Heather Byrne, “Great Expectations: Asking Too Much of the US-India Strategic Partnership,” The Washington Quarterly, Fall 2019, pp. 41-64.
42. See EAM’s interaction at USIBC India Idea Summit, July 22, 2020, note 17.
43. Robert D. Blackwill and Ashley J. Tellis , “The India Dividend,” note 27.
44. Tanvi Madan, “The dragon in the room: the China factor in the development of US–India ties in the Cold War,” India Review, 18:4 (2019), pp. 368-85, and Tanvi Madan Fateful triangle: how China shaped US–India relations during the Cold War (Washington DC: Brookings Institution Press. 2020).
46. C. Raja Mohan, “India Can Deal Productively With Trump (And Biden),” Clingendael, September 18, 2020, https://spectator.clingendael.org/en/author/c-raja-mohan.
47. Joshua T. White, “Navigating two Asias: how Washington deals with the Indo-Pacific ’s rising powers,” India Review, 18:4, (2019), pp. 407-36.
51. Cara Abercrombie, “Realizing the Potential Mature Defense Cooperation and the US-India Strategic Partnership,” Asia Policy, 14.1 (January 30, 2019), https://www.nbr.org/publication/realizing-the-potential-mature-defense-cooperation-and-the-u-s-india-strategic-partnership/.
52. In January 2015, Obama and Modi signed a “Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean Region,” “resolved that the United States and India should look to each other as priority partners in the Asia-Pacific and the Indian Ocean region.”
53. “Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun Remarks at the US-India Strategic Partnership Forum, August 31, 2020,” https://www.state.gov/deputy-secretary-biegun-remarks-at-the-u-s-india-strategic-partnership-forum/.
55. Richard Rossow, Joseph S. Bermudez Jr., Kriti Upadhyay, “A Frozen Line in the Himalayas”
, CSIS Briefs, August 19, 2020, https://www.csis.org/analysis/frozen-line-himalayas, Accessed on September 25, 2020
56. Indrani Bagchi “Support India ’s rise as a power: US,” The Times of India, July 31, 2020, https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/india-has-demonstrated-it-has-the-will-and-capabilities-to-stand-up-to-china-us-official/articleshow/77265637.cms Accessed on September 25, 2020
57. Robert Delaney, “Donald Trump is ‘willing to accept more risk’ to counter Beijing aggression, says US official,” July 30, 2020, South China Morning Post, https://www.scmp.com/news/china/politics/article/3095250/us-official-says-donald-trump-willing-accept-more-risk-counter.
58. Rup Narayan Das , “The India-US Defense Relationship Grows Amid Rising Tensions with China,” China Brief , Vol. 20, No. 11, https://jamestown.org/program/the-india-u-s-defense-relationship-grows-amid-rising-tensions-with-china/.
60. Cara Abercrombie, “Realizing the Potential Mature Defense Cooperation and the US-India Strategic Partnership.”
64. S. Jaishanka, The India Way.
65. Tetsuo Kotani, quoted in “QUAD or SQUAD?” August 6, 2020.
66. Alexander Slater, quoted in Ibid.
67. Nidhi Singal, “Centre launches three new schemes to promote electronics manufacturing in India,” Business Today, June 3, 2020, https://www.businesstoday.in/current/economy-politics/centre-launches-three-new-schemes-to-promote-electronics-manufacturing-in-india/story/405733.html.
68. Alyssa Ayres, “Is the US ready for an Indo-US partnership?”
69. Shruti Pandalai, “Seizing the chance to chart “The India Way,”” The Interpreter, June 12, 2020, https://www.lowyinstitute.org/the-interpreter/seizing-chance-chart-india-way.
71. Constantino Xavier, “Converting Convergence into Cooperation: The United States and India in South Asia,” Asia Policy, January 30, 2019, https://www.nbr.org/publication/realizing-the-potential-mature-defense-cooperation-and-the-u-s-india-strategic-partnership/.