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Biden-Harris Will Bring Continuity for Delhi But Some Challenges Too

As far as India’s domestic affairs go, the Modi government will not get the free ride it has got so far even if the Biden administration will not allow its activist impulses to override US strategic interests.

Conventional wisdom has it that the Republicans are good for India and Democrats a problem. The former are hard-headed realists, while the latter tend to be woolly-headed liberals, worried about issues like human rights.

That is largely a folk tale. When push comes to shove, the Democrats, from John Kennedy to Barack Obama have been as good for India as the Republicans from Dwight Eisenhower to Donald Trump. That is because like all US presidents they have largely followed their perception of their national interests. There have been presidents like Richard Nixon who have allowed personal views to influence their approach, or Trump who made things look outsized with his shared penchant for rallies with Narendra Modi. But what has driven American policy in his administration has been the same thing that got Obama to India on Republic Day 2015 to sign the declaration on the US-India joint strategic vision on the Asia Pacific and the Indian Ocean.

If Trump overlooked issues like human rights, or the Modi government’s attempts to marginalise and demonise Muslims, it is because he did the same when it came to those whom he considered “friends” – Jair Bolsanaro, Benjamin Netanyahu, Vladimir Putin and even Kim Jong Un.

To understand the realist perspective in which the Biden policy will unfold, we need to get a measure of the Indo-US relationship in the context of China. Contrary to what many believe, the US is not relying on India to take on China in the Indo-Pacific. The Indian military capacity is puny and its reach doesn’t go beyond its immediate neighbourhood. The size of India’s economy may kick in some day, but that is still decades away. Whether it is the western Pacific, or the Indian Ocean, the Americans are by far the biggest military power and will remain so for the next two decades at least.

US aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71), Japanese Maritime Self-defense Force Akizuki-class destroyer JS Fuyuzuki (DD-118) transit alongside the Indian Deepak-class fleet tanker INS Shakti (A 57) during a replenishment-at-sea exercise. Photo: U.S. Navy

So, India plays a kind of symbolic role here – a respected regional power with significant diplomatic equities in the Indian Ocean region (IOR) and South Asia. Its voice is heard around the world, and given its size and potential, it adds heft to the coalition arrayed against Beijing, not to make war, but to push it in the direction of playing by the American rules.

From the American point of view, it has been a long-term project to have India as part of its global alliance system. Again, this is not about war, but deterrence and stability that the US needs to maintain its global primacy. Congruence of policy means the US doesn’t have to worry about Sri Lanka, Bangladesh or Myanmar going up in smoke, India can handle that job. In the last two decades, that project has been moving along at a speed inversely proportional to the rate at which the gap in the comprehensive national power of India and China is increasing.

Also Read: What a Biden Administration Could Do – Or Not Do – for India’s Key Priorities

India needs the US

At this stage, India clearly needs the US. Its economy is in a rut and it has reached a dead end with its military modernisation. Propaganda may convince you that five Rafale aircraft can tilt the balance against China, but the reality, according to defence finance expert Amit Cowshish, is that “no enhancement of outlay will ever be enough” to cope with India’s tangled defence modernisation. As for reform, banning foreign booze in canteens, increasing the retirement age of officers or snipping the pensions of prematurely retiring officers is to whistle in the dark.

Then there is the Chinese challenge – on our borders, in our South Asian region and the IOR. In August, Biden made it a point to say he would back India against “threats on the border” without specifying China. But the US is not about to fight our battles for us, and neither do we expect them to do so. This is more about taking on the 1,000 pound gorilla named China, again, not militarily, but on issues like technology, connectivity, development of infrastructure and so on. And this is to be done through coalition-making, with the US leading and countries like Japan, Australia, Singapore, and increasingly the European Union, playing their role. The key feature of the Biden-Harris foreign policy will be an emphasis on multilateralism, rather than the chaotic ‘America First’ policy of Trump.

The Biden administration is unlikely to go for the erratic policies that alternated between deal-making and deal breaking with China. Its approach will be more systematic and an effort will be made to develop a consensus with friends and allies, especially Japan and South Korea and maybe rejoin the Trans Pacific Partnership.

On the other hand, the US under Biden may also not be confrontationist enough for India’s liking, especially in our current Line of Actual Control predicament. Despite Trump, the US still has a dense relationship with Beijing with trade in goods and services topping $634 billion in 2019. Trump initiated the process of decoupling, but the Biden administration is likely to make it less confrontational and more systematic, a process encouraged by the COVID-19 experience, to rejig supply chains to ensure there is no over-dependence on one particular region or country. Much more so than Trump, Biden also realizes that the US lives in the same world as China. There are important world order issues – climate change, trade rules, proliferation, terrorism – where he needs China’s cooperation, regardless of the ongoing US-China competition.

Chinese and US flags flutter near The Bund in Shanghai, China July 30, 2019. Photo: REUTERS/Aly Song

No free ride

As far as India’s domestic affairs go, the Modi government will not get the free ride it has got so far even if the Biden administration will not allow its activist impulses to override US strategic interests. As Democratic contender for the presidential nomination, Kamala Harris had declared in October 2019 that Kashmiris were not alone in the world, and that there was a need “to intervene if the situation demands.” She also stood by her Congressional colleague Premila Jayapal when the latter was disinvited from a meeting with external affairs minister S. Jaishankar. Biden himself has declared that he was “disappointed”  with the Modi government’s measures relating to the National Register of Citizens in Assam and the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA). But in an election campaign, many things get said which are then ignored.

The fact is that the US and India have the basic structure of a sound strategic relationship more or less firmly in place. India has signed the four foundational agreements that smoothen defence cooperation. The two countries are part of the Quad and coordinate policies on China, they have institutionalised the ‘2+2’ dialogue at the level of their respective defence and external affairs ministers which makes for better synchronisation of policy.

But the real push in the relationship will come from the officials selected at key positions – the assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asia, or the counterpart who deals with India in the Department of Defence. Alice Wells has been acting in the Department of State as assistant secretary is 2017. As for defence, it is difficult to find any official who has the kind of interest and commitment to a good relationship like former defence secretary Ashton Carter.

Biden himself has had considerable interest in American foreign policy, having been the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations committee at several points in time in the 2000s when the Indo-US nuclear deal came up. According to Foreign Policy, Biden had a formidable informal team of advisers for his campaign. They comprised 49 working groups and two former State Department officials, Sumona Guha and Tom West, lead the group on South Asia. Some of these advisers may show up at various levels in the new administration.

As for Kamala Harris, her views on foreign policy are close to those of Biden and she has appointed Indian American Sabrina Singh as her press secretary. Sabrina is the granddaughter of the legendary J.J. Singh, who founded the India League of America in the 1940s. In the August 2020 event featuring “South Asians for Biden”, Harris invoked Mahatma Gandhi and said that India’s freedom struggle spoke for values like tolerance, pluralism and diversity.” None of this is likely to make for a comfortable relationship with the current dispensation in New Delhi.

A lot will depend on how the new president and the vice-president will divide their work. One may choose to focus on the pressing domestic issues, while the other looks after foreign policy. This itself could make a difference in the tone and tenor of US policy towards India.

Manoj Joshi is a distinguished fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.