Written by S Shaji
The US Presidential election was watched with keen interest across the globe. Now, with Joe Biden and Kamala Harris elected President and Vice-President, what does that mean for India and more specifically, for the future of India-US relations?
Several debates are underway to understand the possible implications for core areas such as strategic/military, economy as well as political cooperation, especially on issues such as India’s entry into the UN Security Council and so on. Apart from these, there are also debates around human rights, visa regimes, multilateral cooperation and climate change. These discussions assume significance because the Trump administration and the Indian government had moved closer and clinched certain agreements and cooperative frameworks in recent times which generated an impression of stronger ties like never before, accompanied by the public display of camaraderie between President Trump and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Such a projection of stronger ties gains importance in the wake of the China-India stand-off in Ladakh. Keeping the current trajectory of Indo-US relations in view, a few broader inferences on possible trajectories can be drawn on the direction that India-US relations will take under the Biden presidency.
The current nature of Indo-US relations and its roots can be traced to the immediate period after the Cold War (early 1990s). India’s relations with the US have been buoyant ever since the Cold War binaries collapsed following the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991. The improved relations with the US were partially due to India’s own re-fashioning of the foreign policy, which included de-emphasis on the policy of non-alignment, a multi-dimensional engagement with the West, Japan and Southeast Asia, and so on, which were in tune with India’s own domestic economic priorities under the newly introduced economic reforms. Furthermore, the strategic political consideration brought India and the US to work together while economic concerns such as access to investment, technology and market too clearly contributed to such engagements. The only major barriers that appeared was India’s nuclear test in 1998, along with some strong disagreements in that decade over Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), trade related conflicts, especially the ones pertaining to the newly formed WTO mechanism.
Since 2000, the major thrust areas of India-US relations changed considerably, especially with the US launching a strategy of War on Terrorism following the terror strikes on September 11, 2001. Among the major developments that followed included the Strategic Partnership Agreement (2004) and the Indo-US nuclear deal in 2008. Such agreements have had huge implications for India’s relations with the US since it was for the first time that engagements in a formal way were taking place in strategic arenas. Following this, several agreements and treaties followed — among them Logistics Exchange Memorandum Agreement (LEMOA) in 2016 and the Indo-Us Defence Agreement in October 2020.
To a large extent, the presidency of Barack Obama was instrumental for India-US relations to move into the next level of relations with its focus on issues including terrorism, economy and market access along with non-traditional issues such as climate change, cultural issues (for instance, Obama-Singh 21st century Knowledge Initiative). Parallel to this, the foreign policy initiatives of US such as the Trans Pacific pact (mainly with East Asian and Pacific countries), Iran Nuclear Deal (JCPOA, a nuclear deal between Iran and Permanent Member States of the United Nations), the US supported Agreement on Climate Change (Paris Convention) gave India enough scope for flexible strategic tie-ups, trade, improved relations with friendly states like Iran, while building linkages on non-traditional security issues such as climate change (close ties under Paris Accord on issues such as setting up Green Climate Fund).
The Trump administration since 2016 has been focusing extensively on bilateral terms vis-a-vis its relations with India. There has been considerable improvements in engagements, especially in military and strategic arenas as evident from the increasing institutional linkages such as Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD), although engagements on multilateral frameworks such as withdrawal of the US from Paris Convention on Climate Change and Trans-Pacific partnerships (TPP) have been avoided. The Trump administration’s criticism of India’s trade policies and the specific curbs on H-IB visas were certain complex sites of disagreements between India and the US.
A new President taking over would not considerably change the trajectory broadly set in over a period of the last three decades, though certain new features can be expected, especially with a Democrat President. The Biden administration will bring in more rule-based multilateralism, an idea that the Democrats have been advocating for, and this will be a key feature of its forthcoming foreign policy. This could mean opening up engagements with India’s competitors like China (even though there is lesser possibility in the immediate present) and friendly states like Iran, which can be beneficial for India to reduce its tensions with China in the long run. Climate change issues will be taken up seriously by the US (by re-joining Paris Convention) in the international arena which in turn will promote renewed dynamism in human security areas.
A broader perspective on migration that factors in US economic interests will help India, especially in the high skilled employment market. Science and Technology cooperation has been an integral part of the Obama presidency, which is likely to echo in the upcoming India-US relations as well. Areas of disagreement could emerge, especially on matters such as human rights. However, many of these concerns can be addressed over a period and will be done, especially with both the States’ recognising the value of each other as well as acknowledging mutually inclusive common values such as democracy, freedom and secularism.
The US, to a large extent, would promote India’s urge for status transformation in tune with its hard power resources such as military and economy, that would most probably include a renewed push for India’s bid for permanent membership in the UN Security Council while supporting India’s various regional legitimate concerns. There will also be engagements in economic linkages in a much more liberal and mutual way rather than courting around crude protectionism. On top of it, as a Democrat President takes over, there is hope that these two large democracies, the oldest (the US) and largest (India), while following durable equality-based bilateral ties, would promote institutionalism, multilateralism, and a rule and norm-based international governance on global platforms.
The writer teaches political science at University of Hyderabad
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