President-elect Joe Biden will inherit a U.S.-Indian relationship that is nearer than ever to a formal alliance. In the past decade, Washington and New Delhi have deepened their diplomatic and defense ties, but the Indian government has not yet officially allied with the United States. During the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump, India and the United States signed a series of foundational defense, logistics, and intelligence-sharing agreements that pave the way for close security cooperation. Last month, former U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper declared that India will be “the most consequential partner for us, I think, in the Indo-Pacific for sure in this century.”
India’s newfound interest in defense collaboration with the United States is mainly a reaction to Chinese imperial expansionism. Beijing’s territorial aggression in the Himalayas this year and the resulting clashes with Indian troops laid bare the risks to India of dealing with its giant neighbor without the clear support of the United States. As the specter of additional Himalayan battles—or even a reprise of the 1962 border war with China—looms large, India has grown more willing to work with the United States to meet common challenges. To that end, India has intensified its involvement with the Quad—a loose coalition among Australia, India, Japan, and the United States that is central to the United States’ strategy for maintaining a “free and open Indo-Pacific.” As a result of these efforts, India is currently hosting the first-ever Quad military exercise: the Malabar naval war games in the Indian Ocean.
Biden is likely to continue to push for closer cooperation between New Delhi and Washington. But he is also widely expected to reset ties with China in order to ease Sino-U.S. tensions and rebuild cooperation with Beijing. Such a reset will affect relations with India and raise doubts in New Delhi about Washington’s reliability. India’s future partnership with the United States is not yet guaranteed, and Biden will have to be careful not to push India away as he devises a new U.S. strategy in Asia.
THREADING THE NEEDLE
Separated from China by a vast ocean, the United States does not share India’s immediate and potent concerns over Beijing’s growing assertiveness. Earlier this year, while India sought to snuff out the novel coronavirus with the world’s strictest lockdown, China stealthily encroached on several border areas in India’s high-altitude Ladakh region. Beijing seized key stretches of territory and has refused to pull back, alarming both Indian policymakers and the public at large.
Given these tensions, Biden will have to thread a diplomatic needle to improve relations with China without alienating India. Successive U.S. presidents from Richard Nixon to Barack Obama aided China’s rise. Beijing militarized the South China Sea under Obama’s watch. Yet, just months before he left office, Obama contended that “we have more to fear from a weakened, threatened China than a successful, rising China.” China’s neighbors do not share that assessment. It was the paradigm policy shift under Trump, who set Beijing in his crosshairs from the beginning of his presidency and designated China as a “revisionist power” and a “strategic competitor,” that persuaded India to move closer to the United States.
A softer U.S. approach toward China and its regional ally, Pakistan, could slow India’s entry into the U.S.-led security architecture and even push New Delhi to revert to its traditional posture of nonalignment, or strategic autonomy from great powers. The strengthening Chinese-Pakistani alliance generates high security costs for India, including raising the ominous prospect of a war on two fronts. New Delhi would be disappointed if Biden, in seeking to mend U.S. ties with the Chinese dictatorship, abandons Trump’s more confrontational posture toward Beijing. And if Biden relieves terrorism-related pressure on Pakistan by restoring security aid, the Indian government may have second thoughts about hopping on the U.S. security bandwagon.
Another issue that has the potential to sour relations with India during Biden’s presidency relates to India’s domestic division and polarization. While in office, Trump has refrained from commenting on India’s internal matters, understanding that U.S. criticism could strengthen Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s opponents at home. But Biden, through his official campaign page, has already slammed Modi’s government on issues such as Indian actions in Kashmir and a controversial law on citizenship for refugees, calling these matters inconsistent with India’s “long tradition of secularism and with sustaining a multiethnic and multireligious democracy.”
India has traditionally resented such interference in and commentary on its internal affairs. Indian External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar canceled a meeting with members of the U.S. Congress last December after it emerged that Representative Pramila Jayapal, an outspoken critic of the Modi government, would attend. If U.S. leaders, including Biden, are outspoken in their criticism of Modi’s domestic policies or actions, New Delhi will be less likely and less able to formalize an alliance with Washington.
REASONS FOR OPTIMISM
Such differences have the potential to set back U.S. relations with India. But the general trajectory toward increased strategic collaboration probably won’t be altered. There remains strong bipartisan support in Washington for a closer partnership with India, a relationship that could serve as the fulcrum of the United States’ Indo-Pacific strategy.
Biden’s administration will probably prioritize deepening the United States’ engagement with India. The incoming president, more broadly, is likely to pursue a pragmatic policy aimed at containing the threats posed by both the Chinese Communist Party and violent Islamist extremists. He will try to strengthen alliances and partnerships, some of which Trump undermined, and could echo Obama, who declared the U.S.-Indian relationship “one of the defining partnerships of the twenty-first century.”
Biden could accomplish what Trump failed to achieve—clinching a trade deal with India. The booming trade between the two countries totaled almost $150 billion last year. That commercial exchange may help the United States break China’s stranglehold on key global supply chains, especially in the medical sector. The Biden administration will need India, the world’s leading exporter of generic drugs, to source pharmaceuticals and medical technology needed to fight the pandemic. And given Vice President-elect Kamala Harris’s Indian heritage, it would be ironic if relations with India did not flourish under Biden.
Current U.S. policies have counterproductively fostered an expanding partnership between Russia and China. In that context, the strengthening bond with India assumes greater meaning for U.S. policymakers. Even as he tries to lower tensions with China, Biden must be careful not to allow the historic opportunity to forge a U.S.-Indian security alliance slip away. The world’s most powerful and most populous democracies could establish a strong partnership that helps underpin a stable power balance in the Indo-Pacific.