Biden will likely continue to champion strong ties with India

by Nov 20, 2020Defence & Foreign Policy0 comments

Strengthening U.S. relations with India will likely remain a focus for the Biden administration, according to experts.

Even though US President Donal Trump is refusing to concede defeat and has challenged the election results in the Court, it is a certainty that Democrat Joe Biden will succeed him in January. And his deputy will be Indian-American (also a Black American) Kamala Harris.

What will be the implications for India when Biden takes over?

Not much, say many experts.

The general opinion has been there would be no change in the US policy towards India irrespective of who the next POTUS is. And this is despite the common perceptions that Prime Minister Narendra Modi would have been happier with a victory for Trump.

In fact, Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke to US President-elect Joe Biden on Tuesday to congratulate him on his win and reiterate India’s firm commitment to its strategic partnership with the United States. In the phone call from Mr Biden, PM Modi also offered his congratulations to Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, saying that her success was a matter of pride for the Indian-American community.

The US statement on the phone call also talked about “strengthening democracy at home and abroad”. A statement from Mr Biden’s transition team said, “ The president-elect noted that he looks forward to working closely with the prime minister on shared global challenges, including containing COVID-19 and defending against future health crises, tackling the threat of climate change, launching the global economic recovery, strengthening democracy at home and abroad, and maintaining a secure and prosperous Indo-Pacific region.” Mr Biden thanked PM Modi for his congratulations and “expressed his desire to strengthen and expand the US-India strategic partnership alongside the first vice president of South Asian descent,” added the statement.

India is one of the few issues where there is a convergence between Biden and Trump and there will likely be continuity in American policy toward the South Asian country, according to Michael Kugelman, deputy director and senior associate for South Asia at the Wilson Center.

He said both men see the U.S.-India partnership as a “strategic imperative.” That shared view is “rooted in the bipartisan consensus in Washington that US-China rivalry is here to stay, and that New Delhi is a like-minded partner that shares the US goal of counterbalancing Beijing in the broader region,” Kugelman added.

It may be noted that under the Trump administration, the India-U.S. relationship has had a mixed outcome.

On the trade front, tensions flared after the U.S. last year removed India from a long-running program that allowed the South Asian country to export many of its goods to the U.S. without tariffs. In response, India levied retaliatory tariffs on selected U.S. products.

But on the military front, U.S.-India ties have strengthened in light of rising tensions between India and China. Last month, the U.S. and India inked a major defense deal that Washington typically signs with close allies, that will allow New Delhi to access U.S. satellite data crucial for targeting missiles and other military assets.

President-elect Biden “has long championed strong US-India ties,” Harsh Pant, head of the strategic studies program at Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi, told CNBC.

The Indian government was “a bit hesitant” during the Obama administration about fostering closer ties with the U.S., according to Pant. Today, things are different: There is “great receptivity” in New Delhi that a strong U.S.-India relationship is important for the South Asian country’s “global ambitions as well as managing China breathing down its neck in the Himalayas,” Pant said.

The China factor, particularly in the face of the tense border face-off in Ladakh, is believed to hve drawn India closer to the United States in recent months. India is part of an informal strategic dialogue that also includes the U.S., Japan and Australia called the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue — commonly known as the Quad. The U.S. State Department describes the Quad’s role as “collective efforts to advance a free, open, and inclusive Indo-Pacific.”

“While Biden and his advisors have not specifically mentioned the Quad, it is likely they will continue strengthening that dialogue, while also collaborating with India in multilateral settings,” Akhil Bery, South Asia analyst at political risk consultancy Eurasia Group , says.

Biden has been a champion of the U.S.-India relationship for a long time, according to Bery. As chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in the 2000s, he urged the administration of George W. Bush to drop sanctions on India and later helped shepherd through the civil nuclear agreement between the two countries. During the Obama administration, when Biden was vice president, India was also designated a major defense partner, allowing New Delhi to buy more advanced and sensitive technologies from the U.S., according to Bery.

While defense sales by the U.S. to India would likely continue under the new Biden administration, Bery said in a note last month that a potential point of friction could be New Delhi’s plans to buy a type of surface-to-air missile systems from Moscow.

With regards to ticklish issues of trade and immigration, the Biden administration will likely focus on the overall bilateral relationship with India rather than specifically on trade, according to Bery. That could mean the U.S. may not reinstate India’s trade privileges under a previous program which allowed the South Asian country to export many of its goods to the U.S. without tariffs.

On the immigration front, Bery said that Biden’s policy agenda includes commitment to reforming a visa program that would benefit India.

The Trump administration cracked down on the H-1B visa program — the skilled work visa that is used by immigrants, including Indians working in the U.S. tech sector. The move drew strong criticism from U.S. companies that rely on that visa to hire thousands of staff.

Biden will also be more keen on finding new areas of partnership with New Delhi, including issues like climate change, the Wilson Center’s Kugelman added.

“Furthermore, Biden’s more conventional and predictable style of leadership will mean that New Delhi would have a less mercurial partner in the White House than it’s had with Trump,” he said.

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