Promise of a Biden presidency: New Delhi should prepare for a new US administration that genuinely engages with India


What does a Biden-Harris presidency mean for India and South Asia? The question is far from trivial. Despite Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s arduous efforts to befriend him and thereby temper his behaviour, in the end President Donald Trump proved to be as mercurial as ever.

Even while revelling in the fanfare of his lightning visit to India including the “Namaste Trump” spectacle in Ahmedabad, Trump nevertheless viewed the relationship with India in strictly transactional terms. Even his administration’s support for India during the Galwan crisis did not stem from any intrinsic concern for India’s security. Instead, it was a reflection of his intransigent view of the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

Uday Deb

Indeed, his feckless offer to mediate the crisis revealed how little he knew about India’s deep seated aversion to third party intervention in its foreign and security policy matters. This was, by no means, an isolated gesture. Earlier, in the wake of the Pulwama terrorist attack, Trump had offered to mediate a settlement with Pakistan. Not surprisingly, New Delhi had made it abundantly clear that such a step was most unwelcome.

Not only did Trump have no inherent interest in India, he displayed an almost petulant attitude when dealing with a trade dispute with New Delhi. He imposed an array of tariffs on Indian goods even though the trade deficit with India is of little consequence to the overall US trade balance with the world. Nor did he show the slightest bit of sensitivity towards India’s concerns about the dramatic and consequential limits that he placed on H-1B visas based upon the most specious grounds.

Even the strengthening of the military-to-military relationship that took place during his watch was, once again, mostly transactional. Interested in mostly boosting jobs in the defence industrial sector of the economy he simply continued and expanded the band of weapons sales to India. Nor, for that matter, did he display any diplomatic finesse in addressing India’s foreign policy sensitivities. His administration used a blunt cudgel to make India bend on its carefully cultivated relationship with Iran.

Can India expect a more nuanced policy under a Biden-Harris administration? Some within India’s foreign policy establishment fretted about a possible Biden-Harris victory during the presidential campaign. Their misgivings mostly stemmed from a small handful of carefully crafted comments from both aspirants about India’s decision to abrogate Article 370 and the state of Hindu-Muslim relations in India. These comments, however, unpalatable to India’s ruling party and its supporters, cannot be seen in isolation. Instead, they need to be contextualised. They represent friendly criticism from India’s well-wishers even though on issues of some sensitivity.

Looking past these nettlesome issues there are a host of matters where Indian and American interests will neatly dovetail during this administration. At the outset, the aggressive behaviour of the PRC in Galwan and beyond has not gone unnoticed amongst the experienced foreign policy hands that will assume office on the afternoon of January 20 next year.

In a number of public statements several key individuals associated with the presidential campaign including the secretary of state designate, Anthony Blinken, have sounded the tocsin about the PRC’s increasingly aggressive behaviour. While India’s own aversion will preclude the possibility of a military alliance with the United States, one can expect the growth of significant military-to-military as well as intelligence cooperation during a Biden-Harris administration.

Nor is the Biden-Harris team likely to have any illusions about Pakistan. Biden was on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee when the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attack transpired. More to the point, he was also in the Situation Room of the White House when the Navy Seals carried out “Operation Neptune Spear”, the daring raid in Abbottabad that saw the end of Osama bin Laden.

On other issues, such as trade and investment, differences may still persist. However, they will not lead to public upbraiding and needless acrimony. On the contrary, it is entirely reasonable to expect that they will be dealt with professionally through appropriate diplomatic channels. The conduct of diplomacy through tweets fired off in the wee hours of the morning, it can be stated with certainty, is now at an end.

Setting aside these differences, what New Delhi can most count on from a Biden-Harris administration is cooperation on a matter of existential significance: namely, combating the Covid-19 pandemic. Unlike the Trump administration’s go-it-alone attitude, its rank vaccine nationalism, and its aversion to any form of multilateral cooperation the Biden-Harris team will make every possible effort to reach out to India in efforts to tackle this global scourge. Given India’s own national commitment to boost the production and dissemination of a vaccine, cooperation with the new administration should be promptly welcomed.

Finally, looking beyond India’s immediate shores, but nevertheless of considerable interest to its policy makers, a Biden-Harris administration can be expected to restore America’s vital engagement with multilateral institutions. To that end, the new administration can be counted upon to return to the Paris Climate Change Accord and to restore normal ties with the World Health Organization.

These moves which can be expected almost immediately after Biden’s inauguration, should be welcomed in New Delhi as they will signify a renewed willingness of the United States to return to the realm of multilateral cooperation. All told, New Delhi should gear itself to work in concert with an American administration that holds much promise of genuine engagement with India on a range of policy issues.

DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.

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