The overall thrust of India-US ties, including burgeoning security cooperation and the focus on the Indo-Pacific, are unlikely to change under a Joe Biden presidency though experts believe there will be some rebalancing in certain areas.
In a congratulatory message on Saturday night, Prime Minister Narendra Modi recalled Biden’s “critical and invaluable” role in strengthening bilateral ties in his former role as vice president under president Barack Obama, and said he looked forward to working closely together again with the president-elect.
This message, Biden’s past support in critical areas such as the civil nuclear cooperation and counter-terrorism, and strong bipartisan support in the US for bolstering the strategic partnership with India to address global challenges are expected to set the tone for the future course of ties, people familiar with developments said on condition of anonymity.
Biden has been a strong proponent of India-US relations since his days as a senator in the 1970s. During his second stint as chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he wrote to then president George W Bush in 2001 to unilaterally drop US sanctions against India. In his third stint in the same post, Biden was seen by India as a critical ally in getting the Senate’s approval for the India-US civil nuclear agreement in 2008 and also co-sponsored several legislations on terrorism.
“Biden was a consistent proponent of the nuclear deal, and certainly was critical to its success,” said a person who declined to be named.
Peter Lavoy, a former US assistant secretary of defence for Asian and Pacific security affairs, said: “US-India relations improved steadily under presidents Bill Clinton, George W Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump. The Biden administration certainly will view India as a key global partner and can be expected to further deepen economic, political and strategic ties.”
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The India-US relationship stands to benefit as it is one that Washington won’t have to repair post-Trump, said Vipin Narang, associate professor of political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “In general, it will likely be more of the same, since the relationship continued its steady progress despite Trump disrupting relations with other partners such as Germany and South Korea,” Narang said.
In a 2006 interview, Biden had presciently said: “My dream is that in 2020, the two closest nations in the world will be India and the US. If that occurs, the world will be safer.” Biden was also part of the Obama administration when the US declared India as major defence partner and backed its candidature for permanent membership of a reformed UN Security Council.
As recently as last month, Biden wrote in an op-ed in India West newspaper that a Biden-Harris administration will build on the “great progress” in ties with India under the Obama-Biden administration. “We can and should be natural allies,” he said.
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Biden also offered support on issues such as counter-terrorism and the aggressive actions of China. He wrote: “The US and India will stand together against terrorism in all its forms and work together to promote a region of peace and stability where neither China nor any other country threatens its neighbours.”
Former ambassador Vishnu Prakash pointed to geo-political convergences and bilateral commonalities on issues such as security, energy and economy between the two sides, and said: “These are areas where both sides meet and the US will be quite happy to work with us. Besides, the US’s relations with India and Pakistan have been de-hyphenated. With India, it’s building on the positives and with Pakistan, it’s containing the negatives.”
However, former ambassador Rajiv Bhatia, distinguished fellow for foreign policy studies at Gateway House, said India will have to keep an eye on the new US administration’s policy towards China, which could be markedly different from that of the outspoken Trump. “Biden’s policy for China will take several months to take shape though it is expected he will be less loud on China,” he said.
Bhatia and Narang also cautioned that India shouldn’t expect a free pass on issues such as Kashmir and human rights, which Biden and vice president-elect Kamala Harris have raised in recent months.
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While the Trump administration was generally muted on human rights issues and the situation in Kashmir, both figured in Biden’s campaign documents. An agenda paper said the Indian government “should take all necessary steps to restore rights for all the people of Kashmir” since restrictions on dissent weaken democracy. Biden was also disappointed by the “implementation and aftermath of the National Register of Citizens in Assam and the passage of the Citizenship Amendment Act into law” as he believed these “are inconsistent with the country’s long tradition of secularism and with sustaining a multi-ethnic and multi-religious democracy”.
Narang said: “From Delhi’s side, there may be a need to address the perception that the BJP was all-in for Trump and that it attacked Democrats over the past several years for expressing human rights concerns. But in general, I would expect only minor variations on the broader theme of deeper India-US partnership across a wide spectrum of issues, from defence to dollars to diaspora, as well as democracy.”