US under Biden: Implications for India

by Apr 25, 2021Defence & Foreign Policy0 comments

Foreign policy was not an issue in the 2020 election because it was more of a referendum on the presidency of Donald Trump. Analysts, however, were raising the question, what significant changes would Biden bring to the Trump foreign policy? Would the new president make sweeping changes to Trump policies and if so in which areas? Two months into the Biden presidency it is clear that there will be both continuity and change in America’s foreign policy and that is reflected in policies towards the Middle East, Russia, and China. Additionally, there have been significant changes in terms of the United States rejoining the World Health Organization and the Paris Climate Accord. So where exactly is the Biden foreign policy headed and what does it augur for Indian foreign policy decision-makers?


The tendency is for a new American administration to espouse a world view that is different to that of its predecessor and to start taking steps to implement this new policy. Yet, despite this stated desire, American foreign policy typically exhibits high levels of continuity from administration to administration (Mutual Assured Destruction, for example, was a bipartisan defense objective in deterring the Soviet Union). Thus, while the American foreign policy establishment was critical of Trump, he attempted to carry out foreign policy measures that both Bush and Obama had sought to fulfill. Bush described China as a strategic competitor while Obama wanted to “pivot to Asia” recognizing the growing strategic challenge posed by a rising China. Both Obama and Bush, however, were dragged into the swamp of the Middle East and Afghanistan first by the events of 9/11 and later by the fact that both Iraq and Afghanistan had become never ending conflicts.

Trump was successful in shifting the focus front and center to China by first stating that the Iraq war was a big, fat mistake and then ensuring that the United States did not get embroiled in another futile conflict in the region. By reducing the importance of Middle Eastern wars and by pushing forward peace talks with the Taliban, Trump was able to concentrate on the economic, political, military, and soft power challenge posed by Beijing.

As far as Russia was concerned, Trump’s policies were closer to Obama’s than generally accepted by the American foreign policy establishment. Obama had said that Russia was a regional power while he was more worried about a dirty bomb going off in New York. Trump, similarly, consigned Russia to the status of a second-rate power so that he could focus on the bigger challenge that was China. In doing so, he went against the Washington establishment which loves Russia as an enemy since it is an intellectually lazy challenge to counter: Russia’s economy is about as big as that of Ohio while China is on track to become the largest economy in the world; the Russians continue to develop weapons that the United States is more than capable of countering; and the Russian economic model poses little or no threat to America’s economic and technological prowess.

More importantly, Trump understood what the Singaporean analyst Kishore Mahbubani had been counseling the United States to do for a long time and that was to accept that it could not have three major adversaries—China, Russia, and some countries in the Middle East—and, instead, it had to concentrate on countering one adversary. Mahbubani advised that Washington push for peace in the Middle East and have some sort of rapprochement with Russia if it wanted to deter China’s foreign policy, economic, and military efforts.

Trump did so in the Middle East where he was careful not get into another major war for, while assassinating Qasim Sulemani, he did not order a full-scale conflict with Iran. More importantly, he sought to change the political landscape of the Middle East by making the Arab states move towards peace with Israel. As the Indian analyst Abhijit Iyer-Mitra has pointed out, Trump was able to get more Arab states to deal diplomatically with Israel than all American presidents from Jimmy Carter to Barack Obama put together. Now, the two most anti-Israel states in the region are Turkey and Iran, neither of whom are Arab. These diplomatic efforts have created opportunities for a major political shift in the Middle East and this is a situation that the Biden Administration will capitalize upon.

The Biden Administration will build on these aspects of Trump foreign policy since they give the new administration the ability to move more dynamically in all three critical foreign policy areas. While Trump’s tariffs on China may have backfired, his attempts to constrain ZTE, Huawei, and Tik Tok were successful. The more assertive trade policy towards China also led to Beijing coming to the table and agreeing to concessions in the realm of bilateral trade. The Biden Administration is not pulling back from the tougher position on China but, instead, building on aspects of this policy.


At the same time, changes have already been instituted by the Biden Administration to reflect its greater emphasis on treaties, alliances, international institutions, and a concern for non-traditional security issues. As mentioned above, the Biden Administration rejoined the WHO and the Paris climate accords and one of its most significant decisions has been to cool-down the Trump era romance with Saudi Arabia. The Biden Administration has blamed Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for the killing of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi while, at the same time, not using this as the reason to break ties with Saudi Arabia. Of greater consequence has been the decision to withdraw US support for the Saudi war in Yemen and the reversal of the Trump decision to label the Houthis terrorists. Saudi Arabia initially led a multi-nation coalition against the Houthis but now it is the only country left in that alliance and it seems that there may be a push for peace talks in the country—past attempts have stalled on the conflicting demands of the Saudis, the UAE, the de jure Yemeni government, the Southern Transitional Council, and the Houthi rebels.

Like the Obama and Trump Administration’s before him, Biden would like to get America out of Afghanistan since American public opinion views the continued presence in that country unfavorably. Despite the claims of the Washington policy analysts, the American public felt the country had a simple agenda in Afghanistan and that was to apprehend or kill Osama bin Laden since he was responsible for the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington. This objective was achieved on May 1, 2011 and since then America’s role has been described as one of creating a functioning nation-state in Afghanistan. The problem with this approach is that nation-building takes decades to achieve and there is little interest among the American public to stay in Afghanistan in the way that the U.S. has remained in Germany, Japan, and South Korea. The Biden Administration is likely to continue the peace talks with the Taliban in Qatar and the question is when and how does the United States withdraw from Afghanistan?

As things stand, the Taliban has been asked for vague reassurances that it will not permit Afghanistan to become a base for international terrorist groups and that it forms a government of national unity with other Afghan groups. If a Talibanized Afghanistan becomes a new base for violent extremist organizations the United States can, and will, use overwhelming air power to destroy the threat posed by such groups. A government of national unity, however, may just be a fig leaf to allow for a temporary solution that is palatable to the American public. It is unlikely the Taliban will respect such an agreement especially since the realities on the ground favor them, but it will give the United States the time to affect an orderly withdrawal that allows both parties to save face.

The real issue for the Biden Administration in the Middle East is what to do about Iran? The Biden policy, so far, is a combination of Trump and Obama approaches to Iran in that while Washington wants to get Tehran back into the nuclear agreement it is also willing to militarily counter moves that are viewed as upsetting the power balance and status quo in the region. Trump’s mistake was to conflate all kinds of issues with the nuclear deal while Tehran repeatedly stated the deal was not about general Iranian restraint but about committing to slowing down its nuclear endeavors.

China: Challenge, Compete, Cooperate

The Biden Administration tacitly acknowledges that the Trump Administration made things easier for them by changing the parameters of the relationship with China. Both Bush and Obama had sought to make China the principal concern of US foreign and national security policy but events in the Middle East kept dragging back into that quagmire. Trump, as mentioned above, reduced America’s footprint in the Middle East and paved the way for better focusing on the China challenge and the Biden Administration will build on the shift achieved by Trump. It will, however, at least by early indications, try to pursue a policy where conflict is not inevitable but, instead, be one described as challenge, compete, and cooperate.

Much like the Obama and Trump Administrations, the Biden Administration will challenge China’s claims in the East and South China Seas and try and galvanize an Asian coalition of nations to ensure that Freedom of Navigation continues in these areas. Further, in the case of the vexed dispute over islands in the South China Sea, the Biden Administration will push for negotiations between the aggrieved parties based on established international maritime law. China has already said that it would like to negotiate with the other parties to the dispute, but this means assuming a less aggressive stance than was taken vis-à-vis the Philippines after Manila took the dispute to international arbitration.

The United States will also continue to build up its capabilities to maintain nuclear deterrence across a spectrum of contingencies against China and there will also be a build-up of America’s conventional deterrent. The enhancement of the country’s military capabilities has bilateral support in Washington and, therefore, will give new teeth to America’s efforts to challenge and contain China’s attempts to achieve regional hegemony.

Competition between the two countries is going to be heightened in the realm of conventional technologies particularly 5G networks and the development of Artificial Intelligence (AI). The Trump Administration was able to get Britain to back off from permitting Huawei to participate in that country’s 5G network, get the Australians to ban Huawei, and to get the Germans to reduce the participation of Huawei in the development of that country’s 5G infrastructure. The Biden Administration may make some concessions to China but will continue the policy of trying to restrict Chinese participation in Western 5G networks both due to potential security concerns but also because it would give China the technological advantage in the race to develop such infrastructure.

In terms of Artificial Intelligence, the American belief is that while the country still leads in the development of AI, the Chinese are catching up fast. Faced by growing Chinese competition, and the fact that Chinese 5G is starting to spread around the world, America’s National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence has come out with a comprehensive plan for the development of AI in both the military and civilian realms and how the US government can facilitate such technological growth. The belief is that if the US puts its financial and intellectual power behind such a project it will be able to maintain global leadership in this field. At the same time, the globalized nature of the economy, especially for the manufacture of technological products, means that the United States will have to continue to cooperate with China in the economic realm.

American companies profit from China’s purchase of semiconductors since China buys about $300 billion worth of semiconductors annually. China’s being a manufacturing hub also permits an economy of scale that reduces costs and makes the technology ubiquitous. There are those in the US security establishment who would like to reduce the dependence on China but in the short to medium term it would be difficult and costly to move the development of hardware out of China—not to suggest that it could not be done.

Trade between the two countries, despite the best efforts of Trump, did not go down substantially because the cost of doing manufacturing in America would price most goods out of the market. In addition, the Chinese are the only country in the world that can manufacture goods quickly, in volume, with high enough levels of quality, and at competitive prices. America’s retail outlets, therefore, continue to depend on suppliers from China and when the pandemic struck those supply chains were slowed down causing shortages in industries as varied as automobiles to home construction.

A US-China entente will also be needed to deal with climate change and the Biden Administration tacitly acknowledged this by reentering the Paris climate accords. George W. Bush’s treasury secretary, Henry Paulsen, repeatedly pointed out that no meaningful climate change deal could be achieved without having the Chinese on board and Washington will work with Beijing to strengthen and implement the climate accords. If the Biden administration is going to challenge, compete, and cooperate with China, where does India fit into this game plan? The simple answer lies in what India wants to make of it.

Biden and India

Among both Republicans and Democrats there is plenty of goodwill towards India, yet the problem remains how to operationalize it in both the political and military contexts to build a stronger relationship? As I have written before in this magazine, there are six US-India relationships: the government-to-government relationship; the military-to-military relationship; the relationship between Cyber India (Bangalore, Hyderabad, and Gurugaon) and Silicon Valley; the link between the Diaspora and different parts of India; the connection between Indian students and American universities; and the growing cinematic connection between Hollywood and Bollywood. The last four parts of the relationship not only work well but are flourishing while the first two have been marked by good intentions but followed by less effective outcomes.

The reason the military and political relationships are not on the same level as the other four relationships is a residual lack of trust between the two countries and the inability of both Washington and New Delhi to deliver what the other side wants to energize and expand the relationship. For Washington, a strong relationship with India would be one where New Delhi took a more proactive stance against Chinese actions in Asia. This could range from naval patrols in the South China Sea to more active criticism of China’s human rights violations in Xinjiang. It would also have to be grounded in a significant increase in trade and investments between the two countries.

The Quad and Indo-US Relations

The recent virtual Quad summit emphasized some of these concerns when the constituent members declared a need for a “free, open rules-based order, rooted in international law to advance security and prosperity and counter threats to both in the Indo-Pacific and beyond.” This was a clear statement of intent to China that the four countries would press, diplomatically and politically, for a liberal regional order in the Indo-Pacific and this would stand in contrast to China’s vision of a Beijing dominated region.

The impact of political and diplomatic pressure should not be underestimated since India’s efforts to engage in conflict resolution through the pursuit of methods established by international law have drawn the attention of other nations in Asia that seek a resolution of disputes with China. India agreed to take its maritime boundaries dispute with Bangladesh to international arbitration and then abided by the terms of the ruling. In contrast, when the Philippines took China to arbitration over the South China Seas dispute, Beijing simply ignored the ruling of the tribunal of the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Seas. The South East Asian nations are now pressing China to agree to the type of arbitration that led India and Bangladesh to successfully resolve their territorial dispute.

Technological Cooperation

Equally important was the Quad’s declaration to, “Encourage cooperation on telecommunications deployment, diversification of equipment suppliers, and future telecommunications, including through close cooperation with our private sectors and industry.” As mentioned earlier, we are now in the middle of a technological race between the west and China on the global creation of 5G networks. The Chinese were rapidly advancing in their efforts to make a global 5G network that was built by Chinese companies, but an increasing number of nations have sought to limit China’s efforts because of growing security concerns of Beijing using the network to spy on them.

India will play a crucial role in the outcome of global 5G since with a population of 1.3 billion people it not only allows for an economy of scale that makes the technology more affordable, but it also gives corporations a huge marketplace and data base to iron out the kinks in their systems. If such technological cooperation were to include the countries of Western Europe, along with Japan, the United States, and Australia, it would create a technological bloc of over 2 billion people that would provide a successful alternative to China’s 5G network.

From a purely Indian perspective, such technological cooperation would see a growth in India’s own robotics and AI industries and allow it to successfully integrate these technologies into its manufacturing processes. India cannot afford to fall behind in the 5G revolution because it will reshape how goods are manufactured and services are disseminated globally. From a security perspective, AI will help improve India’s biometric data base and allow for a better management of the internal security process since it will increase the ability to do facial recognition and monitoring of suspicious individuals.

Vaccine Diplomacy

The Quad Summit also decided to help subsidize India’s impressive vaccine production efforts to facilitate vaccination across the world. The United States came in for criticism because while it cornered a large amount of the global vaccine supply, it was not in the forefront of giving the vaccine to the poorer countries of the world. In contrast, India’s Vaccine Maitri program has seen the country, by the middle of March 2021, transfer over 58 million vaccines globally (as a combination of grants, commercial sales, and as part of the Covax initiative) to countries as varied as Bangladesh, Barbados, and Rwanda. The US government partnership with the Indian firm Biological E. will help address this criticism of US policy since the plan is to have India manufacture and distribute 1 billion vaccines around the world by the end of 2022. Since China has sent its vaccines around the world, and started to gain soft power from such efforts, it is imperative that the Quad partnership counter this effort by Beijing and India, as the largest vaccine manufacturer in the world, is uniquely placed to not only vaccinate the world and create a safer global environment but also to counter the Chinese narrative on the pandemic being exploited by the West. Vaccine diplomacy may, in fact, be the most significant short-term achievement of the Quad and allow it to play a crucial role in improving global health.

Trade not Weapons

Apart from the Quad, what will the Biden Administration’s relationship with India be based on? The Indian media obsesses on the purchase of American weaponry for India’s armed forces and one continues to see reports on the imminent purchase of the F-21 (F-16) or other expensive weapons systems. The problem is that as the government uses its resources to jump-start the Indian economy and to provide adequate healthcare to its population it cannot afford the expensive weapons purchases that the Armed Forces and the Indian media demand. In the short to medium term, India will spend heavily on monetary stimuli for the economy—much in the way the US and Europe have done—and on building up the country’s healthcare facilities. Nor will the United States be able to provide subsidized weaponry to India in the way that Washington did to countries around the world during the Cold War—Pakistan’s military force structure is a testament to such largesse. Given these constraints, the growth of the relationship will have to be based on trade and that will require some restructuring of Indian investment policies and the broader economy.

The Biden Administration is keen to increase trade and investments with India and there is considerable opportunity for this in the government’s Make in India policy where there are 30 odd sectors where foreign investment can be welcomed. US investments in the automobile industry, where Washington is pushing for new energy vehicles, as well as in the pharmaceutical, healthcare, and construction sectors would go a long way to build a bourgeoning economic relationship between the two countries. Secondly, despite all the hype about India’s educational capability, the country’s work force is falling behind nations like Vietnam and the Philippines in providing labor that can successfully work in a new globalized, technological environment. The time has come for the Indian government to work with American government to have a blended (physical and virtual) educational plan for India that makes it workforce competitive in the global marketplace.

To sum up, while the Biden Administration would like a strong relationship with India it will not be based on a global political agenda or on a militarized challenge to China. It can be based on expanding democratic values, creating a global health order, and on finally opening the Indian economy to accept large amounts of global investment.

Amit Gupta is an Associate Professor in the USAF Air War College. The views in the article are his and do not necessarily represent those of the USAF or the Department of Defense.

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