From viewing India as a third-world country and a minion to becoming a equal partner in many endeavors, the US-India relationship has come a long way. The closeness of political leaders of the two democracies and the increasing cooperation in defence and other fields is an indication of the changing preferences of both the countries irrespective of the party or president in power.
As a metric of the increasing proximity of the two countries, there were just three US presidential visits to India for the first 50 years since India’s independence I.e, from 1947 to 1997. The first two visits were by Republican Presidents, Dwight D Eisenhower (in 1959) and Richard Nixon (in 1969), and third one was by a Democrat, Jimmy Carter (in 1978). However, the 23 years since then saw five US presidential visits to India: three of them by two Democrats, Bill Clinton (in 2000) and Barack Obama (in 2014 and 2015), and two by the Republicans, George W Bush (in 2006) and Donald Trump (in February 2020).
While the bonhomie between Donald Trump and Prime Minister Narendra Modi is being highlighted in the wake of the US election, we should not forget PM Modi shared a special relationship with the earlier Democrat President Barrack Obama too. Both had jointly addressed the monthly ‘Mann ki Baat’ radio program, a first for the top leaders of both the countries. Another first were the ‘Howdy Modi’ and ‘Namaste Trump’ events in 2019 and 2020 where President Donald Trump and PM Modi addressed their supporters in US and India. While the cordial relationships between the leaders is an indication of the growing proximity of the two countries, it alone does not say much about the underlying challenges.
With the relationship between the two countries moving from the ideological ‘shared values’ to a more pragmatic ‘shared interest’ paradigm, the relationship has become more transactional which is a accepted reality in a multi-polar world. While US has operated in the transactional mode for long, Indian polity in general has been late in seeing the change. US administration, Republican or Democrat, is guided by national interest rather than visible bonhomie or shared values. For example, Obama spoke very positively about India and its IT industry but wooed China like no other.
Trump may have echoed many of India’s concerns over Islamic terrorism, threat from China, but his tenure as President has not exactly been beneficial to India.
Pakistan and Terrorism
The Trump administration has been vocal about terrorism emanating from Pakistan’s soil. This was a welcome change for the Indian administration. However, the US has continued to fund Pakistan though Trump has threatened to cut assistance due to its involvement in terror activities and corruption. During the fiscal year 2019-2020, US was again the top donor country to Pakistan of on-budget, grant-based assistance. US assistance to Pakistan is always in the form of grants, which does not add to Pakistan’s debt burden or balance of payments challenges.
Biden on the other hand is seen as being favorable to Pakistan and has never blamed it for any of the terror activities in India and around the world. Pakistan PM Imran Khan has expressed that Biden as President will make him and Pakistanis happy. Though US is expected to act against terror organisations which can threaten its own citizens, Biden as President is expected to give Pakistan the advantage to further its agenda against India and the neighbourhood.
Defence and Security
Several defence deals were signed and approved in lightening speed indicating the growing defence ties between the two countries. Between the US and India, the defence trade has increased from around $200 million in 2000 to over $20 billion in 2020. In 2020 alone, India ordered 24 MH-60R Seahawk anti-submarine warfare helicopters, 6 AH-64E Apache helicopters. Together, these acquisitions were close to $3 billion.
The Indian Army had placed the first order for 72,400 of SIG716 Assault Rifles in February 2019 under the fast-track programme at the cost of around Rs 700 crore and started receiving its first pieces under this deal in December 2019. Earlier this year, procurement for 72,000 more rifles was cleared by the Defence Ministry. But Trump administration has not waived India from an American law that threatens sanctions on countries purchasing arms from Russia. This also shows that US always puts its interest above and over the good of its allies.
Less than a week ago, India and the US met for the third 2+2 dialogue and signed the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA) on geospatial intelligence, sharing information on maps and satellite imagery for defence purposes. With BECA, India has all access to US’ advanced geospatial intelligence, thus enhancing the accuracy of the automated systems. These arrangements and defence deals are expected to be honoured and grow irrespective of who the winner would be in the US elections.
Trade and Immigration
Trump’s isolationist stance have hurt Indian businesses and economy. His protectionist policies especially over immigration have harmed the interests of Indian visa-seekers. Major changes to US visa policies under Trump have made it harder for US firms to hire Indians on H-1B work visas. This has hit the Indian IT companies which depend on outsourcing by US firms hard.
With regard to Climate change too, US has used India as a pawn to play its own games. India ratified the Paris climate accord in October 2016. The US instead of keeping its word on Green Climate Fund that would have invested in renewable energy in India, walked out of the Paris agreement and blamed India and China.
The Trump administration forced India not to buy cheaper oil from Iran and Venezuela and also forced it to buy more expensive oil and gas from the United States, even pushing for long-term commitments that aren’t viable. During last few years, Trump administration has raised tariffs on imports from India, on everything from steel to rubber, a move which India reciprocated with similar tariffs on US products. Trump removed preferential treatment given to Indian exports by the previous Obama regime, further hurting the Indian economy at a time when it is reeling under the pandemic and worldwide economic downturn. This “mini trade war” with US has not really helped Indian producers and businesses, though there have been a huge increase in the imports and exports.
Biden has claimed that he will do away with such confrontational approach towards trade and will strive for a mutually beneficial trade policies with all countries. He has also promised to ease immigration policies tightened by Trump but it was more in reference to the Muslim refugees rather than skilled manpower from countries like India.
Trump and his Secretary of State have been critical of China’s trade practices, its expansionist moves both at the Indian border and in the South China sea. The question of China is also linked to trade relationship between US and India. In 2019, with $146 billion worth of trade with India, US overtook China as India’s largest trade partner. From $113.6 billion in 2016, trade between India and the US has increased to $146 billion by the end of 2019. However, for the US, India is the ninth largest trading partner, and the return of Trump could improve this.
Trump had expressed that he would want US supply chains to exit China in a post-COVID world as he himself had hinted on many occasions previously. While the beneficiaries of this exit from China could be countries like Vietnam or Mexico, India has also been reaching out to some leading giants to come and manufacture in India. Apple has already increased its production capacity in India. India is looking to lure more than 1,000 companies away from China. It is in this aspect that return of Trump to the White House could have proved to be a shot in the arm for India’s pursuit to replace China. However, with Biden at the helm, a less adversarial approach is expected giving China the time to stem the tide much to the loss of India.
Further, the coming together of US, Australia, Japan and India, is seen as a very significant move to counter a expansionist China and also formalise defence and security ties between the four nations. Regular summits, information exchanges and military drills between the four countries is critical for the security and independence of the region. While the US was the only nation to make a direct reference to China in the QUAD dialogue held in Tokyo in October 2020, a Trump’s second term may have accelerated the process of formalising the QUAD.
Biden in the White House may stem the momentum which is critical for the QUAD but will not do away with the arrangement. Though Biden has not publicly commented against Trump’s stance on China or the QUAD, a softer posture against China could go against the long-term interests of the QUAD, thus giving China an additional advantage to strengthen its defences in the Indo-Pacific region.
Kashmir, CAA and Muslims
Indian liberals were miffed that during his visit to India, President Trump refused to talk about CAA and blame Modi government for the violent protests. Liberals were also angry that the US under Trump did not take the abrogation of Article 370 as seriously they wanted it to. Though Trump did not speak about issues like CAA and Article 370, few elements in his administration and US government funded bodies have always tried to undermine India. Alice Wells of the US State Department repeatedly issued statements disapproving CAA, detaining of separatist politicians in Kashmiri after abrogation of Article 370, and over restrictions imposed in Kashmir. US organisations like Amnesty International, USAID, USCIRF and a host of anti-India NGOs have always tried to meddle in the internal affairs of India and the Trump administration did nothing to rein them in. Though Trump did not officially attempt to meddle into India’s internal affairs, a Biden administration under the Democrats is expected to the blatant and louder in its interference.
Though Trump has offered to mediate over Kashmir, his administration did not officially make any move keeping India’s interests in mind. However, Biden is seen as being closer to Pakistan and is expected to take a pro-Pakistan stand on various issues. Biden has expressed his ‘displeasure’ in India’s handling of Kashmir. He has also made remarks against the passing of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA).
Biden’s official campaign website in a post titled ‘Joe Biden’s Agenda on Muslim-American Communities’ has said “In Kashmir, the Indian government should take all necessary steps to restore rights for all the people of Kashmir……Joe Biden has been disappointed by the measures that the government of India has taken with the implementation and aftermath of the NRC in Assam and the passage of the CAA into law. These measures are inconsistent with the country’s long tradition of secularism and with sustaining a multi-ethnic and multi-religious democracy”. His campaign mate and a runner for Vice President Kamala Harris in September 2019 answering a question on the abrogation of Article 370 had said, “We have to remind the Kashmiris that they are not alone in the world. We are keeping a track on the situation. There is a need to intervene if the situation demands.”
A recent Foreign Policy article titled ‘Biden and Harris Could Be Bad News for India’s Modi’, categorically says that Harris may be a part of that wedge herself as the Democrat senator has been “diplomatically circumspect in her few public comments about India’s government but has shown no love for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)”. The article explains that given her past statements and stance on so-called ‘Human Rights’, Kashmir, and Muslims, “Modi’s opponents in India may suddenly have much more leverage at their disposal.” How far these statements translate into policy if Biden becomes President needs to be seen. India is sure to keep a watch and thwart any attempts to meddle into its internal affairs.
However, Joe Biden has on many occasions has also said that with Indian Americans being the third-largest group in the US after the Chinese and Filipinos he is always for bettering ties with India. Under a Biden administration, the defence cooperation and monitoring of Chinese hegemony is expected to continue. Further, a Biden-Harris administration may revoke some of the immigration measures brought in by Trump which can be beneficial to Indian workforce in the US. The trade restrictions and tariffs are expected to continue with no preferential treatment given to India. India is only expected to deal with the US likewise, keeping its own interests in mind.
As highlighted earlier, with the relationships with the two countries having entered a pragmatic and transactional ‘shared interests’ phase, there will be lesser and lesser space for decisions made with the emotional quotient. It goes without saying that the Modi government will not tolerate any interference or mediation in the internal matters of the country either officially or through non-governmental organisations based out of the US. One hopes that the Biden administration respects India’s concerns and interests.
The 1.2 million Indian-American voters are clearly of importance to any US president and this was evident in their campaign as they made every attempt to win their votes by showcasing their friendship with India or highlighting their concern for India. Michael Kugelman, Deputy Director at the Asia Program explains that either candidate would work very well for India. “They (US) are perfectly happy with the policies of this administration. Regardless of Biden or Trump in the White House, the relationship with India is going to be a major priority. That is because there is a very strong bipartisan support for partnership with India, particularly given the US-China rivalry” he says.
The general consensus both in the US and Indian administration is that it is time for both the countries to put their common interests above narrow immediate gains in order to counter a expansionist China. Biden understands this and has expressed the same on several occasions. Billions worth trade and defence deals, moving of supply chains from China to benefit both, support for each other at international forums, will be the key to a mutually beneficial relationship in the coming future.
Though bonhomie between the leaders will play a part in foreign relations, it is shared interests and mutual benefits that matter more than optics. For an India which is pragmatic in its foreign policy which keeps the interests of the country as paramount, a Republican or a Democrat President would not matter much. Irrespective of who enters the White House in Washington DC, only its stated interests will matter for a growing and influential India. Likewise, the mutual relations will also depend on how US would see itself in the coming years and the agenda it sets for itself. A US that does not interfere in others internal affairs, a US that does not get tempted to be a ‘policeman of the world’, and keeps mutual interests above ideological compulsions will do good both for the US itself and the entire world.