The headlines in an Indian newspaper on Biden winning the US Presidential election stated, ‘Modi send congrats, relief in Delhi as known Indian ally is back.’ Biden has been a supporter of deepening Indo-US ties even before he became the Vice President under Obama in 2009. In 2006, Biden had stated, ‘My dream is that in 2020 the two closest nations in the world will be India and the US.’ This dream may come true during his presidency. The Obama-Biden administration announced India as a major defence partner. LEMOA (Logistics Exchange Memoranda of Agreement), the first of the agreements, was signed during this administration. It set the base for deepening Indo-US strategic partnership.
In his campaign document, Biden stated, ‘Will work with India to support a rules-based and stable Indo-Pacific region, in which no country, including China, is able to threaten its neighbours with impunity.’ While India may not figure strongly in the US’s China containment plan, as India remains a strategic ally, not an alliance partner, there would be closer engagement in military sales, trade and other issues of common interest. The fact that both nations are democracies and have a similar outlook would bring them closer.
While US support to India would continue, as with Trump, India would handle its security challenges, with Pakistan and China, on its own, without involvement of any other nation.
However, as is the Democratic policy norms, human rights and liberty will remain a stumbling block, which India will need to diplomatically handle. Kashmir and CAA may be raked at some stage. The impact of this will need to be contained. While on the campaign trail there were multiple comments on Kashmir and Human Rights, by both Biden and Kamala Harris. As in all elections, such comments are individual statements, not those of national policy.
Simultaneously, as is the norm, Human Rights and enhancing strategic partnerships would be on two different levels. Not only India but also Pakistan and China would face pressures of Human Rights.
The challenges that Biden faces, apart from bringing unity within a divided nation, include US-China relations, handling different perceptions on Iran, withdrawal from Afghanistan, resetting ties with Europe, approach to Russia and re-entering various UN organizations which Trump quit including climate change and the WHO. While on China his approach may not change, on others there could be a variation. China has and will remain a threat to US power and alliances in the region. Hence, China would need to be ‘contained and engaged’, an action which Pompeo termed as ‘congagement.’ In this, India may not play a major role.
Simultaneously, there would be engagement and forward movement on aspects of common interest. The US can never allow China to expand territories in the South China Sea nor attempt to regain Taiwan. How many restrictions placed by Trump on Chinese companies, including Huawei,would be lifted and would the trade war conclude, remains a mute question.
Iran will be a major challenge. Israel and Saudi Arabia would demand continuation of sanctions, while Biden may seek to reassess Trump policy and re-join the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) which came into being during the time of his vice presidency. This would be of major benefit to India as Indian investments in Iran as also procurement of oil from the country would no longer be impacted by sanctions. On Afghanistan there is unlikely to be any major change. Biden has never been in favour of deployment and maintenance of large forces there. However, would seek to push for peace before completing the final withdrawal.
There are expectations that the Russian policy may become firmer, which could impact Indian procurements from Russia. He is unlikely to lift sanctions on Russia.
The Biden administrations views on Pakistan would depend on how Pakistan is viewed. If viewed from the prism of terrorism or India, it may not be a conducive viewpoint. If viewed from the prism of Afghanistan, talks, peace and withdrawal of troops, it may be positive. Its proximity to China will come in the way, especially as the Biden administration would need to concentrate on handling an expansionist China.
Pakistan has always felt closer to Biden and had even honoured him with the Hilal-i-Pakistan, its second highest civilian award, in 2008, for his efforts in favouring a proposal to allocate 1.5 Billion non-military aid to the country.A lot of water has flowed down the Indus since then. As part of the Obama administration, he supported launching of the operation to eliminate Osama Bin Laden and multiple drone strikes in the country. Terrorism remains a major concern and this could impact Biden’s views. Hence, the policy towards Pak would remain as it was largely during the Trump era, a combination of carrots and sticks. This may suit India.
Resetting ties with Europe could boost current Indian diplomatic outreach there. India has been reaching out to Europe as a counter to China. Germany has already announced its intention of joining France and UK in ensuring a free and open Indo-Pacific from next year. With the US resetting ties with region, China would be the loser. There could be a global move to decouple economies from China as also operate jointly in the Indo-Pacific.
As far as Kamala Harris is concerned, we need to understand that her family connections with India are perfunctory. She is the US Vice-President, and her views would be in tune with US interests, never India. She would toe the administration line, ignoring her personal biases.
US national interests in the region would largely remain the same and be a priority for anyone who occupies the White House. The approach to dealing with them may be tweaked nominally. Freedom of navigation, maintaining US supremacy in economy and military as well as the ability to fulfil commitments to allies in the Asian region would entail a close relationship with countries which have the power to counter Chinese aggressiveness. Indo-US relations would grow, despite minor hiccups, never recede.
The author is Major General (Retd)