Speculation about what Biden’s presidency would mean for India is unnecessary. India-US ties are now strong, with growing strategic convergences and mutuality of interest. If the US can contribute to India’s economic growth, technology modernisation and expanded international role, India’s value to the US as an economic and security partner, and in stabilising a rules-based international order currently under challenge, has grown. Not much fine-tuning is needed as India-US ties are humming well.
The Biden administration will take time to become fully operational. His appointments to the State Department, the Pentagon and to the post of National Security Adviser (NSA) would be important. The crystallisation of afreshened up agenda of IndiaUS will take a few months. Biden will have to pay priority attention to domestic issues of political and social polarisation, the health havoc caused by the Wuhan virus, the state of the economy etc. Trump has left a lot of toxic debris behind him, which would need cleaning up, and with Trump maintaining the heat, Biden would have his hands full.
Biden, unlike Trump, is no novice in foreign policy, with his long experience in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and as Vice President. He is familiar with the substance of India-US ties — he backed the India-US nuclear deal — and has visited India in 2013 with trade expansion and climate change issues foremost on his mind. Vice President Harris’ role in handling US policy towards India will be limited. Institutionalised and processdriven decisions under Biden will be mainstreamed through the State Department, the Pentagon, the NSA, the Commerce and Treasury Secretaries etc. It will not be personalised, erratic, tweeted decision-making, as in Trump’s case.
If Biden were to reflect on the state of US democracy as exposed by this presidential election, the bitterness generated, the integrity of the process called into question, white supremacy issues, race relations, his administration should not seek to lecture India on human rights, Article 370, CAA, etc. Getting on one’s high horse with discomfort in the saddle is a mistake. Biden’s handling of China will be closely watched by India. Whatever the change in tone in US-China ties under Biden, the substance will not change materially.
President Xi’s expansionist mindset and determination to challenge the US on geopolitical and technology fronts, and the internal consensus in America that China is now a strategic adversary requiring restrictions on Chinese access to American technology, research facilities, education system etc., and coupled with unresolved trade, IPR and cyber-espionage issues, Biden will not have much room to manoeuvre.
The mending of US-Europe ties under Biden should also lead to a better understanding on meeting the China challenge that Europe is beginning to increasingly realise, with a collateral benefit to us. The Indo-Pacific concept and the Quad, with established geopolitical goals to curb China’s maritime, digital and connectivity expansion, will develop in the same perspective. Biden will be tough on Russia, with attendant balancing issues for us. On Iran, softening of sanctions is unlikely given Congressional hostility and breakthroughs in Israel-Gulf countries’ ties. In Afghanistan, India’s concerns about US withdrawal under the shadow of Taliban’s continuing horrific terrorist acts will remain.
Climate Change will re-emerge as a major issue on the India-US agenda, with Biden set to rejoin the Paris Agreement. India-US defence ties will grow to meet India’s needs and push by US defence companies. Trade issues will remain a contentious issue even without Trump’s obsession with America’s trade deficit, given USTR’s traditional goading of India and Indian bristling.
(The writer is a former foreign secretary)