Shared Indo-US strategic concerns over China will continue to deepen security cooperation, but the Modi government might not get the free ride on domestic affairs it enjoyed during the Trump era.
On the surface, US President-elect Joe Biden’s elevation to the highest office in the land spells the end of a four-year bonhomie between Donald Trump and India’s Hindu nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
However, it is shortsighted to assume that relations between the world’s oldest democracy and its largest one have ever been based on an ideological affinity between their leaders.
For over the past two decades, successive American presidents have underlined strong ties with India.
The 2005 nuclear deal under George W Bush Jr.’s presidency marked a generational leap in bilateral ties and set the stage for a strategic partnership, and New Delhi became the lynchpin in President Barack Obama’s ‘pivot to Asia’ calculus.
Trump has built on it and advanced the relationship further, and there is no reason why Biden won’t maintain that strategic momentum.
While Modi will miss the flattery and ceremonial pomp (from ‘Namaste Trump’ to ‘Howdy Modi’), what he might miss the most is the free ride he enjoyed at the hands of the Trump administration on the domestic front.
“India was lucky to have Donald Trump, the least concerned US president on the issues of human rights violations,” says Dr Gareth Price, Senior Research Fellow of the Asia-Pacific Programme at Chatham House.
Feared by some in India is a Democratic administration that pushes the government on issues related to religious freedom, civil liberties and excessive force in Kashmir. And judging by comments made by both Biden and Harris, Modi’s government could come under much heavier scrutiny from the top.
In his Agenda for Muslim-American Communities, Biden condemned the CAA – the Modi government’s controversial new citizenship act – and a separate attempt to build a population register (NRC) that could provide future justification to expel foreigners, calling them projects “inconsistent with the country’s long tradition of secularism and with sustaining a multi-ethnic and multi-religious democracy.”
Kashmir also features on Biden’s Agenda for Muslim Americans. “In Kashmir, the Indian government should take all necessary steps to restore rights for all the people of Kashmir,” it says on the Biden campaign’s website. “Restrictions on dissent, such as preventing peaceful protests or shutting or slowing down the Internet weaken democracy.”
Harris has been even more outspoken.
“We have to remind Kashmiris that they are not alone in the world,” she said back in October 2019, when she was campaigning for president during the Democratic primaries. “There is a need to intervene if the situation demands.”
And in December 2019, Harris publicly criticised Indian External Affairs Minister Subramanyan Jaishankar after he refused to meet Indian-origin Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal over her denunciation of the Modi government’s abrogation of Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir, a disputed territory between India and Pakistan since 1947.
The role of China
The Indian economy is reeling and defence modernisation is in a fiscal rut and in desperate need of reform – no matter the state narrative claims of a handful of Rafale aircraft tilting the balance against China.
When it comes to China, India faces what it views as a triple Sino threat: on its border, in its regional sphere of influence, and in the Indian Ocean.
The Indo-Pacific region will remain an important theatre of US strategic interest, and it is likely to push for greater cooperation among major democracies like India and other two Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD) partners Japan and Australia in a bid to counterbalance China’s expanding geopolitical influence.
In August, Biden said he would back India against “threats on the border” without explicitly mentioning China.
In the end, it is a land war in Asia, not a maritime dispute that is at the forefront of Sino-Indian tensions, says Price.
“The number one threat for India isn’t Chinese naval bases in Sri Lanka, its immediate challenge is that it has [hundreds]of troops up in the Himalayas, and the Chinese have proper routes to reinforce them while the Indians don’t.”
But the rivalry between India and China isn’t just about the military, but on issues like technology and infrastructural development too.
After tensions escalated significantly over the summer between the two, India retaliated by banning 59 Chinese apps in the country. Then the two armies clashed high in the Himalayas on their disputed border, resulting in the death of troops on both sides.
While Trump’s erratic “America First” policy alternated between deal-making and deal-breaking with Beijing, Biden is expected to advance multilateralism and lessen direct confrontation, which India might find concerning.
If US policy shifts from hardening against China to go after Russia, it could leave India further conflicted.
But at a more fundamental level, the process of decoupling with Beijing that Trump initiated is likely to continue under Biden, albeit more systematically and with less fanfare.
Challenges will remain on the economic front, but it might be easier for New Delhi to negotiate on issues that were complicated by the Trump administration’s transactional approach.
For one, it could try to push for a resumption of the GSP-plus (Generalised System of Preferences) on grounds that it would provide a boost to India’s pandemic-hit economy and enhance its capacity to take on China.
India will also benefit from Biden’s promise to reverse Trump’s restrictions on employment-based visas such as the H-1B and permanent resident cards.
Why Afghanistan matters
Price argues that Afghanistan could well be the crux in how the US-India relationship evolves under Biden.
“If there is more interest in a sustainable Afghan peace process than a kind of stitched up deal to get troops out – then you have to deal with Pakistan questions, which are then linked to Indian questions.”
And that’s where Kashmir comes into play because of its implications for Pakistan, which has implications for Afghanistan, Price asserts.
“Say Afghanistan goes well, there are concerns in India that the Taliban come and play up in Kashmir. The message coming from the US, if it were to take a human rights angle, would be to say that you’re [India] endangering your own security through how Kashmir is being handled.”
This could mean greater outspokenness by the US on issues that would likely also be driven by Washington’s ongoing need to re-engage Pakistan to ensure its continued support in fostering the peace process in Afghanistan and could see the US take stronger action towards any unilateral moves by India to alter the status quo in Kashmir.
But how that will go down in New Delhi, is anyone’s guess.
What will Biden’s priority be in South Asia? Will it be countering China, or will it be sorting out Afghanistan?
Either one will have consequences for Indian foreign policy.