With emotions running high as the US presidential election climaxes, India needs to adopt a cool and considered attitude to further the bilateral relationship. Irrespective of whether one hates or loves President Donald Trump or former vice-president Joe Biden, raison d’etat requires India to plan and strategise to deal with whoever American voters will send to the White House.
Should Trump remain in office, it will be less of an adjustment for India because the momentum that has already been generated will carry on. The remarkable timing of an inperson India-US 2+2 dialogue, which was held barely one week before election day, showed what the parameters and potential are if Trump secures four more years at the helm. The Narendra Modi government has figured out a Plan A with Trump and it just has to be executed smoothly.
But in the event of a Biden win, India has to have a Plan B based on understanding where he comes from, what he stands for and how he can be harnessed to advance India’s national interests. Broadly speaking, a Biden presidency will remain committed to the India-US “comprehensive global strategic partnership”. But in the light of extreme policy volatility that has befallen the US in recent times, Biden will self-consciously look to repudiate many of Trump’s actions and approaches to world affairs.
Therein lie opportunities which India should capitalise on. A Biden presidency will be less transactional and competitive than Trump’s vis-à-vis the US’s traditional partners and allies. If Trump’s populist world view deemed every single nation on earth an economic rival that is taking advantage of the US through unfair rules, Biden’s track is going to be the liberal one of distinguishing friends (especially democracies) from foes (authoritarian countries), and being generous to the former.
A low-hanging fruit India must pursue if a Biden administration comes in is to settle trade disputes that had raged on despite several rounds of negotiations under Trump. The economic nationalism spearheaded by Trump caused billions of dollars of export losses to India and denied us the Generalised System of Preferences (GSP) privileges that we deserve as a developing country.
Trump’s mocking of India as a “tariff king” and his unwillingness to conclude even a mini trade deal unless India made more concessions belied the simple reality that India’s overall trade surplus with the US ($17.42 billion) is a pittance compared with the US’s deficits with China, Germany or Japan.
Owing to the bipartisan anti-China sentiment and absolutely negative public perception of China in American society, a Biden presidency cannot afford to lift the massive Trump-era tariffs on China. In contrast, India is not a “red meat” political issue in Washington. If Biden is in the Oval Office, an early and amicable closure to the trade war with India is possible and worth following through. It will be a booster for India’s post-Covid economic recovery.
In the geopolitical sphere, Biden has vowed to revive the Iran nuclear deal that had been the signature Middle East initiative of the Barack Obama administration. This is a favourable stance for India because Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran had the unintended effect of limiting India’s investment and development of the strategic Chabahar port — a crucial venture to keep Pakistan under check and prevent Chinese encirclement on our western flank. If there is a fresh Iran-US thaw, India will also get more options and space to counter jihadist extremism and ensure Afghanistan’s stability.
The Indo-Pacific is the ultimate touchstone of the India-US partnership. While Trump moved during the latter part of his first term to aggressively consolidate ties with a range of partners there and pushed back against China, the regional architecture is still not solid enough to deter Chinese offensive behaviour. Part of the problem has been Trump’s disinterest in formulating an identifiable formal policy toward the Indo-Pacific, except to insist that the US wants a “rules-based” order and freedom of the sea lanes of communication.
If Biden is in charge, India must nudge him on the Obama-era “pivot” or “rebalance” to Asia strategy, which had set specific targets for relocating the US military away from the Middle East and concentrating maximum US naval assets to ring-fence China in its backyard. Since Biden is also a professed believer in a multilateral US foreign policy, he will be all ears to ideas for New Delhi and Washington to team up with other China-wary countries and form a united front.
Unlike Trump, Biden will not be as tight-fisted when it comes to financing infrastructure and connectivity projects in the Indo-Pacific, which are as important as a collective military pushback to rein in the Chinese dragon. With a receptive Biden around, India and the US can identify a number of poorer countries in South Asia and the Indo-Pacific and jointly implement economically beneficial projects as a trustworthy and safe alternative to China’s “debt trap” diplomacy.
Of course, India must temper its expectations on how far the US of today can go in opening its purse strings and carrying out a proactive foreign policy. Should Biden be the next president, his foremost priority will be overcoming the domestic challenges of the pandemic and pulling America out of its socioeconomic crises. Even if he personally wants a reinvigorated US role in the international arena, the era of American interventionism and power projection in faraway parts of the planet is gone.
India must be rational and try to make the most of a possible Biden presidency, but we should also be clear-eyed that the US is not the be-all and end-all for achieving our strategic goals. Smart forward planning with lowered expectations will serve us well.
(The writer is a professor and dean at the Jindal School of International Affairs)