Biden Admin Will Prioritise India – Ties to Be Deeper Than Ever

Joe Biden understands that with China’s rising might, the power balance in the world is fast shifting.

Updated
Opinion
8 min read
Image of India, US, China maps used for representation.
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This is the first time that the United States of America has a president who has been the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Joe Biden was at the forefront of international diplomacy and policy making as a senator and later as vice president.

He has represented US in every part of the world: post-Cold War Europe, Balkans, Russia, China, Iraq, Afghanistan, South Asia, Asia-Pacific, Middle East, Africa, and Latin America. Having played a decisive role in shaping US foreign policy for years, President Biden understands that with China’s rising might, the power balance in the world is fast shifting - increasingly becoming bipolar.

This is where US and Indian interests converge.

China’s Expansionist Threat

India has a bigger problem than most other countries as global dynamics have shifted to make Indo-Pacific the new region of engagement. During the cold war era, India had the luxury to remain non-aligned as US and USSR weren't anti-India, and did not share borders with India - which an ambitious China does.

Dr Aparna Pande is Washington DC-based Hudson Institute’s Director of Initiative on the Future of India and South Asia, and author of ‘Making India Great: The Promise of a Reluctant Global Power’. She agrees that China craves Indian territory.

“Unlike US and USSR during the cold war, China wants to create a collectorate in South Asia. India has first-hand experience of how China acts. It has lost a war with China. China keeps changing maps. India and China do not a have a firm border. India does not have the technology and security apparatus to monitor the border year round, and cannot afford to have troops at high altitude posts in winter. When Indian troops withdraw in winter, China advances, taking over Indian territory a bit at a time,” she says.

This approach results in occurrences such as satellite sightings of a Chinese village in Arunachal Pradesh, and months long stand-off at the border in eastern Ladakh. From the time of Mao Zedong, ‘Five Fingers of Tibet’ has been China’s guiding foreign policy in South Asia.

China wants to occupy the five fingers (Ladakh, Nepal, Sikkim, Bhutan, and Arunachal Pradesh) of what it considers its right hand palm, Tibet. South Asia is one of regions in which China is rapidly expanding its diplomatic influence by financing roads and ports in SAARC countries, which increases the possibility of expanded Chinese military presence.

Chinese Economic Ascent Drives India and US Closer

Growing apprehension about China’s aggression has driven New Delhi and Washington closer. US foreign policy has always viewed India through a China prism since the end of the cold war.

China’s rising economic clout in the world compelled US to seek a strong ally in Asia. A democracy seen as balancing a large multi-cultural population, focused on educating its people, with a post-liberalisation growing economy - India became a ‘natural partner’, a phrase used recently for India by the Biden-Harris campaign.

In an article in ‘Foreign Affairs’, Dr Ashley Tellis, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, along with former US Ambassador to India Robert Blackwill wrote:

“They hoped that India’s upward trajectory would shift the Asian balance of power in ways favourable to the United States and thus prevent Beijing from abusing its growing clout in the region.”

Dr Tellis was instrumental to forming the India-US civil nuclear deal. He was a senior advisor at the US Department of State, and special assistant to President George W Bush in the National Security Council.

India Named ‘Major Defence Partner’

In August 2001, Biden urged Bush to drop the US sanctions imposed against India in 1998, after the Pokhran nuclear tests. Biden helped win approval in the US Senate for the US-India civil nuclear agreement. The Obama-Biden administration named India a 'Major Defence Partner’ in 2016 that allowed India to be treated at par with other US partners in terms of access to military technology.

Obama-Biden administration had also supported India's claim to permanent membership of the UNSC. Even as US’ other international alliances came under pressure during the Trump presidency, security ties between US and India continued to become tighter.

The Quad nations’ increased engagement since 2017 and the 2020 Naval Exercises in South China Sea strengthened India’s position in the region. US-India signed BECA in 2020, the foundational defence deal which puts India almost at par with US’ closest allies.

Indian Fiscal Strength a Concern

The stage is set for a deeper cooperation. But Washington has a concern – the Indian economy is facing its biggest contraction since India’s independence.

Previously a senior advisor at the White House and director for South Asian affairs at the National Security Council, Dr Joshua T White is a Foreign Policy Fellow at Brookings Institution in Washington DC.

Also an associate professor at the Johns Hopkins University, Dr White’s analysis is that economic challenges are worrying:

“I know the Biden team will focus on US economy worn down by COVID-19 in the short term, and deal with the pandemic. But in the long term if India’s growth does not get back on track, it will make India less appealing as a strategic partner for US. Significant ties are there in place that bind the two. Part of the appeal is India’s growing and large economy, and to leverage its influence to build its capabilities.”

The International Monetary Fund has predicted that Indian economy would shrink by 10.3 percent in 2020. With a very tiny 1.9 percentage of its GDP as a stimulus package to help recover from the downturn caused by the pandemic, India’s economy might take much longer time to reach the levels needed to invest in modernising its defence capabilities.

The US is keen that India invests to fuse more deeply into a US operating system. Dr Aparna Pande knows that fiscal strength is critical, “Till 2000, India bought nothing from the US defence industry. Now it does, worth $20 billion. India can buy a lot more if India has the funds. US has not put anything off the table. It depends on whether India has the economic power and intention to buy more.”

Significance of Shared Democratic Values

Apart from India’s economy, shared democratic values was also a factor that favoured US support for closer ties with India, in their intersecting rivalry with China. The world has perceived India as a large, pluralistic, democratic nation, which did not need a strong state to hold it together.

Dr Aparna Pande finds that less liberal values can present an image of India which the world might not be comfortable with.

“Hindi has a wonderful word - khatas - not a pleasant taste in our mouth, that takes away a broader part of the partnership. Especially when China is rising, India is focused on rewriting its history of thousands years back, not encouraging women to play a bigger role - the percentage of women in labour force has dropped from 40 percent in 1990s to 20 percent today. Caste-based focus and anti-minorities attitude pull a country back internationally.”

Commitment to democratic values has been seen in statements of new political appointees in the Biden administration, and will continue to be an important element of US foreign policy.

With majoritarian politics on the rise in India, Dr Joshua White explains that most diplomats who have worked with India understand that public criticism is not particularly effective to advance US interests:

“India is a large and important country that is increasingly confident of a global role, and is key partner of US. US would note any concerns, but would engage in private to be more effective and respectful. Especially as US has lived through four years when democratic credentials were in question, for the new administration to speak clearly about democratic values, the objective will be to do it respectfully and in a humble way.”

Bipartisan US Support for India

In 2006, Biden said that if India and US become closest friends and partners by 2020, the world will be a safer place. At that time, China's strength had not been anticipated fully. Today US understands that China's might and rise is not going anywhere, hence India-US ties become more significant.

The Trump administration cut $300 million in defence aid to Pakistan over its failure to tackle terrorism. Biden is very familiar with the history of US-Pakistan relations.

He understands the role of Pakistan’s army and that US military and civilian assistance didn’t work. The US-Pakistan counter-terrorism alliance is not what it used to be. US does not supply equipment or engage in exercises with Pakistan.

Dr Joshua White of the Brookings Institution believes that the Biden administration will prioritise India. “US relationship with India is deeper than before. There is concern particularly among Democrats in Washington that some risks in India-Pakistan relations are rising. US will need to play an important role in preventing and mitigating if such a crisis were to emerge. It is also reasonable for US-India to expect future provocations from China. China is more aggressive and assertive on its periphery. The support within US for India would be bipartisan. The Trump administration was helpful to India during most recent border crisis with China - sharing intelligence - the same will be true under the new administration. The slate of people coming into administration know India and are sympathetic to India, with China's aggression on its border.”

Historically, India has not appreciated US meddling in India’s bilateral relations with its neighbours.

The Biden administration might recalibrate its crucial relationship with India according to India’s domestic politics and economy. The question that arises then is not what the Biden administration can do for India, but what does India want.

Dr Aparna Pande of the Hudson Institute says, “Ask the question in reverse. Put yourself in an American policy-maker’s shoes, and you realise that India has to know what it wants and where does it want to go. Indian state is reluctant to understand the meaning of power, not just soft power - yoga, ayurveda, vast influential diaspora - the Indian state has to understand military capability, projection of power and economic power. India has not built defence all along its border with an assumption that no country will cross another's border. India is not a revisionist country.”

Where Does India Want to Go?

Will India’s attitude toward its hostile neighbour China, which is also one of its largest trading partners, continue to be awkward and cautious? Will India continue to hedge and balance?

US sees an ambiguous picture coming out of India which makes it wonder -what if India resigns itself to a power center on its border? India has not yet decided where it sees itself in a world with growing linkages among nuclear, cyber and space arenas.

The Biden administration plans to regain American influence and reassure its allies that it has not retreated from the world. Its ‘preferred partner’ India needs to decide – will it continue to be a status quo country?

(Savita Patel is a senior journalist and producer, who produced ‘Worldview India’, a weekly international affairs show, and produced ‘Across Seven Seas’, a diaspora show, both with World Report, aired on DD. She has also covered stories for Voice of America TV from California. She’s currently based in the San Francisco Bay Area. She tweets @SsavitaPatel. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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