What can India expect in its relationship with the US under the Biden Administration? Former Indian Ambassador to Washington DC Arun Singh, who interacted with many Obama-Biden team members who are now in the Biden-Harris team, discussed key issues with a nationwide audience. Edited excerpts:
On the Biden Administration and China
A lot of people in India, the US and elsewhere have been trying to figure out how the Biden Administration would respond to the China challenge. They have been partly concerned because of some vacillations that were seen during the Obama Administration…
President Trump himself, in the beginning, gave mixed signals… Subsequently the Trump Administration clearly defined China as a major global rival, a strategic competitor…
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Now, when you look at what Biden has said and what people around him have said… they have said the situation today is very different from the situation in 2016, China follows unfair trade practices, China is a major technological rival to the US… So I would believe there will be some nuancing because they will want to show that they are different from the Trump Administration — and some have said that Trump was very aggressive on China by the end — but Biden would be more effective on China, because Biden has said that he will bring allies and partners to have a common approach towards China. Although the US under Trump had taken a very aggressive approach towards China, the Europeans didn’t follow it because he had decried alliances. But if the US wants an effective policy on China, it needs to bring its allies in Europe and Asia on a common platform to respond to the China challenge.
On the future of Quad
Clearly the Quad made much more progress under the Trump Administration… Quad of course had started earlier, after that it slipped a little because Australia lost interest in the process because of its own relationship with China… But now as all countries, be it Australia, Japan, India, US, are facing similar challenges in many ways from China, tThere is a recognition of some harmonisation of work in the Indo-Pacific region… If you see the conversations that Biden has had with the Prime Minister of Japan, Prime Minister of Australia, President of South Korea, and the statement that has been put out by the US side, there is a reference to the Indo-Pacific and therefore, it is a recognition that in some areas, they will recognise and build on the positive work that has been done by the Trump Administration.
On the approach towards Pakistan
The US will define its approach towards Pakistan based on how it perceives its own interests being served, and from India’s perspective, we have to see where is the convergence and divergence… Today, the US wants to get out of Afghanistan, and they believe that they need cooperation from Pakistan for a dialogue with the Taliban if some kind of reconciliation can progress between the Taliban and the government in Afghanistan. And because of that, the sharpness of their rhetoric and action related to Pakistan has come down. The only thing they have done is, they have maintained Pakistan in the grey list of their Financial Action Task Force, as a pressure point.
Now the US has traditionally struggled with a policy on Pakistan, whether to incentivise Pakistan or pressure Pakistan… I would believe that a Biden Administration would be clear-eyed about the nature of the Pakistani state, its involvement with terrorist groups. So they will recognise that but they will have a certain need for cooperation from Pakistan in the context of Afghanistan and that will limit the extent of pressure…
On Biden’s likely policy on immigration
The Biden campaign had made it clear that they would not be as harsh on immigration issues as the Trump Administration has been. The Biden Administration has signalled that they recognise that the high-skilled immigrant worker, including the high-skilled Indian immigrant worker, contributes to the US remaining in the lead in technology globally…
But this is a challenge that I have also in the time of the Obama Administration. Even then, there was a phase when the visa fees for H1B workers of certain categories of companies, which impacted Indian companies very much, were raised to three times. So this is the pressure the US system faces — they want to get more skilled workers because it helps the US, but at the same time, many US workers who are unemployed, who lose jobs, start generating a campaign that they are losing jobs because of the H1B immigrant worker. And that generates pressure on Congressmen, Senators to try and restrict that. So I think the Biden Administration would also have to work its way through these.
On the US and India-Russia
This is clearly going to be an important issue. For India, our relationship earlier with the Soviet Union and now Russia is very important. The Soviet Union gave us military support, military supplies, political support, at a time when it was not available from the West, be it the US or others. And even today, almost 60% of our defence inventory is of Russian origin and there are certain areas where we get technologies from Russia at competitive prices that are not available elsewhere…
[Under] CAATSA (Countering American Adversaries through Sanctions Act), purchase of major defence systems from Russia could become sanctioned, and the S-400 is a case in point… India’s case is different and from the various comments and writings that have come out in the public domain, it has been made clear that the US would be making a mistake if it sanctions India for the S-400… If the US then goes ahead and sanctions India for something, it will affect its own image as a reliable partner and will impact negatively on the evolution of the US-India relationship. The US needs to keep that in mind. I think it was because of this that when the US Congress passed the CAATSA Bill originally, there was no provision for waiver — the US administration had no capacity to give waiver from the sanctions — but the then administration lobbied in Congress to give the President waiver provisions. So I would hope and expect that if the situation reaches a certain point, whoever is the US President would exercise that waiver and not impose sanctions on India.
On the Biden Administration’s likely approach on Kashmir, CAA/NRC
We have to recognise that US leaders will base their politics based on their compulsions, their constituent interests and, therefore, they will take a certain position on issues that they articulate as human rights, based on how it plays out for them and their voters. You would have seen the kind of comments that came from Bernie Sanders at one stage, comments that came from Kamala Harris, from Pramila Jayapal. But at the same time, people in the Biden camp have said that any differences with India on issues related to human rights would be based on a discussion among friends. My own sense is that India takes its decisions based on its own interests; we don’t have to be unnecessarily insecure or on the defensive related to decisions that we take. The US has its own challenges, systemic racism… all societies face challenges. Therefore, any India-US discussion or dialogue related to human rights should be as a dialogue among friends who are trying to understand each other, who want to advance their relationship and a recognition that every society has challenges that it is dealing with.
On Biden’s cabinet appointments
When I look at the appointments made so far, it is a clear signal that President-elect Biden is comfortable with people who worked with him closely — Tony Blinken was his national security advisor; Jake Sullivan was his national security adviser until 2014. I had the occasion to interact with many of them — Sullivan who used to be the Director of Policy Planning in the State Department when I was there, Blinken in his various capacities, Avril Haines was deputy NSA.
So the clear sense that I got was that all of them are very aware and very committed to the India-US relationship. During the time of the Obama Administration, there were many firsts. In 2009, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was invited as the first state visitor of the Obama Administration. In the US, state visits are a very clear signal… and President Obama wanted to signal that there was going to be continuity from the time of President Bush, from the time of the civil nuclear cooperation agreement… And then they also declared India a major defence partner — no other country in the world has this status, and it was done deliberately because India is not an ally and yet they wanted to give India the same level of technology access as their closest allies and partners.
Vice-President Biden had come to India in 2013 and, speaking at the Mumbai Stock Exchange, he said that he’d like to reiterate what President Obama had said, that the India-US relationship would be the defining relationship of the 21st century. And he spoke about what he had said in 2006, that by 2020, he wants the US-India relationship to be the closest. And we are in 2020 now. So I would say that given the fact that many in the Obama-Biden team are going to continue in the Biden-Harris team, I am very confident based on my interactions when I was there that the India-US relationship will continue to strengthen over the next four years.
Transcribed by Mehr Gill
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