Yes, Biden and Modi can!

With China becoming a common threat and a factor to strengthen the India-US defence and security partnerships further, New Delhi and Washington DC will surely find ways to accommodate each other.

In 2006, Joe Biden, while announcing his vision for the future of US-India relations said: “My dream is that in 2020, the two closest nations in the world will be India and the United States.” The time has come to test Biden’s golden words. Will India continue its honeymoon in relations with the US?

Since Biden nominated the Indian-American and AfroAmerican-origin California Senator, Kamala Harris, as his running mate, the interest and scope of the diaspora’s inclusive participation have suddenly increased in the presidential polls. The support from the diaspora for the Biden campaign, including funds and poll management, is pouring out all the way from the East to West Coasts. 

 Suddenly, the Biden campaign has an electrifying current, triggering strong speculation about his entering the White House. This has made many think tanks and experts busy in forecasting the future for India. New Delhi is also reading the fine lines between Biden’s quote of 2006, which leads to the question: Will India have the same vital status of an honest friend and a key strategic partner in the US diplomacy at the Capitol Hill as it has enjoyed under President Donald Trump?

Biden was instrumental in the strong India-US ties that picked up momentum during the Obama presidency, including being the man behind the signing of the civil nuclear deal and opened prospects for trade and business partnerships with India. Can he be the same for India 15 years later? It is not yet final who will the new owner of the White House in January 2021, but the diplomacy experts, business leaders and the top names of the Indian-American diaspora are hopeful even if it is Biden-Harris combine calling the shots next. However, they prescribe the world’s largest and oldest democracies to “be accommodating for the future of global democracies against the arbitrarily expansionist China”.

 In fact, the strong diaspora will be the best bridge of continued strong ties between Capitol Hill and Raisina Hills. The strong, influential and affluent Indian-American community, most of whom are big funders and supporters of the Democratic Party, would be the key in building a strong narrative of India in America.

A top Democrat supporter, fund-raiser and a strong voice for the Indian diaspora, Frank Islam says, “India needn’t worry about the buzz on the Biden administration that it will be anti-New Delhi. In fact, there is a bipartisan consensus on US-India relations in this country. That will continue under the Biden administration”, says Islam, adding, “India should not worry about a Biden administration, which I think would be better for India on many levels, including on issues such as a trade, work visas and immigration.”

 However, some point out that the Biden campaign, which is currently infiltrated with strong Left-liberals, would definitely push someone like Harris to take India head-on on the issues of Kashmir, Citizenship Amendment Act and the NRC. It is also a strong possibility that Democrat leaders may raise these issues in public or private to play to their political constituencies.

 But given the state of IndoUS strategic, defence and trade engagements, New Delhi should not waver at the prospect of losing its current global status and also its diplomatic status in the US foreign policy, particularly in the context of the Indo-Pacific region. “That is impossible,” says a top diplomat in the New Delhi circles, while commenting on the “new owner of the White House”. The European ambassador said: “As geopolitics is changing the political and economic landscape, India will become even more important, especially for the US. In a demand/supply angle, India is on a unique curve. The US will need India much more than before. Be it economically, for innovation and talents, even for technology, or most importantly, for security reasons. India will be vital for the future anchor of global stability, namely the Indo-Pacific. India has the scale, the skills and the speed.”

Will the US new administration in the White House, be it Biden or Trump, ignore this fact? “Not really,” says Michael Kugelman, a top South Asia expert and Deputy Director in the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington DC. 

“India-US ties will be on the upswing no matter who comes to power. There is strong bipartisan support in Washington for a deep US-India partnership, and an increasingly powerful China that is causing concerns for both countries in Asia will only accentuate, for whatever party controls the White House, the importance of US-India ties,” Kugelman says.

But Kugelman adds, “You may see a bit more of a willingness from the Biden government to be more critical of India on its human rights policies, especially in Kashmir, so New Delhi may need to be ready for that. But this wouldn’t become a major new feature of the relationship. Also, with US-India relations poised to move forward in a big way following the India-China crisis, there may be an urge for Delhi from the Biden administration to engage in more operational-style security cooperation with the US. But this is something we can expect from another Trump administration as well.”

 Mukesh Aghi, president and CEO of US-India Strategic Partnership Forum (USISPF), is sceptical, saying that it is to be seen which way the wind moves. “Not only India, many other nations may have to fine-tune their ties and diplomacy with the US if Biden comes to the White House.”

Aghi told TDG: “Should Vice President Biden win the 2020 election, every nation will need to fine-tune its approach. Geopolitically, while we are aligned, the differing interests of lobbyists can change the nuance of the relationship. If Pakistan-supported lobbyists gain influence, then the Kashmir issue or Article 370 will resurface, which so far has been ignored by the Trump administration. While economic priorities will sustain, Hindutva issues could come to the spotlight. Therefore, India will have to fine-tune its approach to a Biden administration.”

 Insiders in the US diplomacy, however, say, “PM Narendra Modi’s multi-polar diplomacy and its current tough resolve against China will compel the new White House policymakers to rethink against any detour from the current level of diplomatic ties the two enjoy.” The White House also realises the fact that India will not change its narrative on Kashmir from here and given the US own pressing domestic issues out of the current pandemic, Washington will be focused on putting the life on rails first and get the economy running and health infrastructure equipped to handle any more pandemics like the Covid-19.

Assets and liabilities of political regimes go hand-inhand in diplomacy. We take some, shun others to accommodate. The experts see many areas of strong IndiaUS engagement even under the Biden administration. Kugelman says, “The same ones we’ve seen with Trump: security, especially revolving around maritime collaborations, arms trade, technology transfers and intelligence cooperation; energy, which has only recently emerged as a key area for collaboration; and diplomacy, particularly in terms of partnering with India in global forums to pursue mutual interests. I also would anticipate Biden — who is more of a pro-free trade centrist Democrat than an anti-free trade progressive Democrat – to try to make efforts to resolve trade tensions with New Delhi.”

Adds Aghi, “Defence will get more and more pivotal, Indo-Pacific strategy will evolve purely from defence to an economic trade corridor among the Quad partners. Global supply chain will get more important where India will play an important role, specifically in the healthcare sector. India will need to open its market further, especially to Quad partners and forge a stronger economic relationship with the US, Japan and Australia.’’ The same can be extended to South Korea, Taiwan and countries like Vietnam and the Philippines for their strong US focus.”

Many like Islam see the partnership getting strengthened on the issues of terrorism, Pakistan and China. “On the issue of terrorism, India and the United States are on the same page. On Pakistan, China and defence, a Biden administration would play a more constructive role than the Trump administration, which has left all allies and friends everywhere to fend for themselves. Bilateral cooperation in energy has been increasing under each successive administration. In fact, there will be more commercial transactions under a Democratic White House than the current one, which has proved to be very protectionist,” Islam told TDG.

 Many feel the urgency for New Delhi to engage with Washington DC as usual. Islam says, “It is always important to have a good relationship with an incoming administration. But in India’s case, a potential Bidenled White House is likely to have many old India hands such as Ambassador Rich Verma and former Assistant Secretary Nisha Biswal. There is a perception in this country that New Delhi is emotionally invested in Trump and wants him reelected. While I don’t believe that to be true, the Indian government should avoid any perception that it is taking sides.”

 But many like Islam also know the fact that India is a true friend of the US. Personal chemistry doesn’t come in between country-to-country ties, especially for the two democracies having common strategic bonding points like terrorism, and now China.

It is to be seen whether Biden, if he comes to power, will complete the unfinished task of President Obama — supporting India’s place in the United Nations Security Council. Now with China becoming a common threat and a factor to strengthen the India-US defence and security partnerships further, New Delhi and Washington DC will surely find ways to accommodate each other.

“Yes, we can!” seems to be the way ahead for India with whoever comes to the White House in January 2021.