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The Biden presidency and India-US ties – analysis

Hope has been rekindled in the participatory democratic process as the American voter has definitively chosen the Democratic candidate and former United States (US) Vice-President (VP) Joe Biden as the 46th President along with Senator Kamala Harris as his running mate. The latter’s victory is particularly poignant for its many resonances — this is the first time that a woman, a person of colour, and an Indian-American will occupy the office of the vice-presidency. While it seems that Donald Trump will use every legal option to delay and defy the verdict of the Electoral College, the US is preparing for a new occupant in the White House on January 20.

President-elect Biden is no stranger to India and played a valuable role as a legislator in the rapprochement over the nuclear issue when it was being steered by the George W Bush-Manmohan Singh combine. He is familiar with the essential continuity in the India-US bilateral relationship. Hence the road map for the next four years with Biden at the helm will, in all likelihood, strengthen ties in those sectors where progress was made (defence cooperation) on the Trump watch and repair the damage done in areas such as trade where restoring the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) would enable Indian exports.

Under Trump, the India-US bilateral track retained the structural orientation that had been envisioned in the Bill Clinton-Atal Bihari Vajpayee years. It is instructive to recall the Biden approach to Indian sensitivities about how to frame the relationship with the US, for Delhi is reluctant to go down the path of a formal alliance, for good reason. In his July 2013 visit to India, the then Vice-President Biden noted: “There is no contradiction between strategic autonomy and a strategic partnership. Global powers are capable of both.”

The current collective global challenge is dominated by the Covid-19 pandemic and the figures are stark. The US and India lead the list in the total number of cases, and the scale of the economic-fiscal haemorrhaging is yet to be estimated accurately. The pandemic is one of the many critical global challenges where the US leadership would have been desirable, and this is where the Biden-Trump contrast is striking. The climate crisis and maritime pollution are huge (as Trump would put it) and some experts aver that the world has crossed the tipping point. It is irrefutable that sustained collective action based on credible scientific data and an equitable sharing of the mitigation effort is the way ahead but this is exactly what President Trump rejected.

The Biden presidency offers the hope that the US commitment to multilateralism will be back on track and here there are many areas where Delhi could be a relevant stakeholder in global load-sharing. It is encouraging to note that in his statements, Biden has promised to bring the US back into the World Health Organization (WHO)’s fold and focused on the need to give this challenge the highest policy priority in relation to Covid-19.

For all the opprobrium that the Trump presidency has elicited, his unpredictable China policy merits scrutiny from both the US and Indian perspective. Trump forced the US establishment and the world at large to acknowledge the predatory nature of China’s global aspirations and its corrosive impact. How this policy shift towards Beijing will unfold in the Biden years will be extremely relevant for the global strategic order and its regional/Asian implications will be even more acute for Delhi.

Post-Galwan, the China challenge looms large for India and the recent statement by Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) General Bipin Rawat is pertinent. In relation to the current military stand-off in Ladakh, General Rawat asserted: “Our posturing is unambiguous. We will not accept any shifting of the LAC. In the overall security calculus, border confrontations, transgressions, unprovoked tactical military actions spiralling into a larger conflict therefore cannot be discounted.”

How the Biden team will frame the China challenge to Indian sovereignty in relation to abiding US interest will be a critical indicator for the Narendra Modi government in mediating the Delhi-Beijing relationship. The more recent defence cooperation traction accorded to the bilateral track, by way of Delhi signing the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement and inviting Australia to be part of the Malabar naval exercises, is illustrative of the potential that needs to be explored.

There are many areas/sectors in the multilateral basket relevant to India and paradoxically, China, that a Biden presidency could enable if it remains committed to a pragmatic and equitable global partnership. The post-Covid-19 era is yet to arrive and the immediate road ahead for the US President-elect will be to identify policy priorities and the manner in which they will be pursued. And in engaging with a new team in the White House, Delhi will benefit in prioritising the hi-tech sector namely core ICT (computing communications) and AI (artificial intelligence) for the long term. To maximise the possibilities of the “strategic partnership” that Biden referred to, India must be astute and overcome an inherent difidence and institutional prickliness, as it defines its own modest relevance in a partnership that was estranged till 2005.

C Uday Bhaskar is director, Society for Policy Studies

The views expressed are personal

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