The Debate

Why India Loves Joe Biden

Biden will be received warmly in Delhi next week, given his long-standing support for India on critical issues.

Last month’s U.S.-India strategic dialogue in New Delhi was widely viewed as a failure. As Ambassador T.P. Sreenivasan, a former Indian diplomat, put it, “The India-US Strategic dialogue, by all accounts, accomplished little…. Both sides said in private that the dialogue made no difference to the relationship, which had reached a plateau, with no prospects for breaking news.”

In retrospective, one of the most important outcomes of the strategic dialogue may have been Secretary of State John Kerry announcing that Vice President Joseph Biden would be visiting India in July, ahead of Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s expected visit to Washington this fall.

Biden and his wife, Jill Biden, will arrive in Delhi on Monday and stay in the country through Thursday, before heading off to Singapore. In India, the couple will meet with officials from both the government and opposition party, and will visit Mumbai where the vice president is expected to deliver a speech to the Bombay Stock Exchange. Overall, the trip is expected to focus heavily on increasing economic ties with India, with energy and climate, defense, and regional issues also expected to be on the agenda.

In a background briefing on the trip today, a White House official also said Vice President Biden will “set out an ambitious vision for the U.S.-India relationship, looking not just at the months ahead or the years ahead, but the decades ahead.”

If all this sounds a lot more expansive than Kerry’s visit to Delhi last month, that’s because it is. And for good reason: whereas India remains suspicious of Kerry, viewing him as a stooge for Pakistan, Delhi loves Joe Biden. After Obama selected Biden as his running mate in 2008, some Indian newspapers ran the story under the headline “Obama picks India friend Biden as running mate.”

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And indeed what a friend Biden has been to India, particularly during hard times on critical issues, first and foremost, nuclear issues.

Nothing better encapsulates this than then Senator Biden’s reaction to India’s nuclear tests in May 1998. Immediately after the nuclear tests, even before Pakistan had responded with its own, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee—of which Biden was then the ranking member—held a hearing on Delhi’s decision.

The hearing not surprising served as a forum for Senator after Senator to disparage India for its decision to test nuclear weapons. Biden was not immune to this entirely, stating the seriousness of the situation and opining that the “tests are sure to alter fundamentally the U.S.-India  relationship which had begun to blossom in recent years after a lengthy  chill.”

Yet a few paragraphs into his opening statement, Biden began to signal his concern was more about avoiding a complete souring of U.S.-India relations when he characterized the decision to test nukes as one made by “a weak, minority government in India [which] has thrown good international citizenship by the wayside for the narrow calculations of domestic political advantage.”

More astonishing, he later added:

“Mr. Chairman, in spite of our justifiable outrage at this moment, I think it is important to keep in mind our long-term strategic interests. We also need to make distinctions. Despite its grave miscalculation this week, India is not a rogue state. It is not a Libya, a North Korea, or an Iraq. It is the world's largest democracy and it is a country with which we share much in common. It is a country with which we should have good relations. But these tests will make a better relationship much more difficult. India should pay a steep price for its irresponsible acts, lest we encourage others to follow the Indian example. But a nation of India's size, importance, and stature cannot be isolated forever. We will have to engage India. India can hasten that, but only if it undoes some of the damage it has done. It can do that by signing the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty immediately and without conditions.”

It’s hard to understate how much this differed with the prevailing sentiment in the DC at the time. While many were calling for dracion sanctions against India as a way to pressure it to give up its nuclear arsenal, Biden was effectively calling for the U.S. to immediately legitimize the arsenal.

And he wasn’t shy in defending his view. In July 1998, a mere two months after the tests, Senator Biden gave a speech to the Carnegie Endowment's Non-Proliferation Project in which he called on President Clinton to abandon his “one-size-fits-all” non-proliferation policy. Instead, Biden suggested, the administration should negotiate packages with India and Pakistan in which the countries agreed to join various non-proliferation schemes (while keeping their nuclear weapons) and in return the U.S. would lift its sanctions against them. During the speech Biden also called on the U.S. to end its “benign neglect” of South Asia.

Biden was nothing if not persistent. In August 2001, for instance, Senator Biden—now chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee—wrote a letter to President George W. Bush calling on the new administration to unilaterally drop U.S. sanctions against India.

“Today, the economic sanctions against India serve to stigmatize rather than stabilize,'' Biden wrote, adding that he was hopeful that if the U.S. lifted the sanctions: “India will respond with reciprocal acts of goodwill in nonproliferation and other arenas.” He also offered to work closely with President Bush to help advance U.S.-India ties.

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Although the 9/11 terrorist attacks the following month would temporarily refocus U.S. attention away from India, ultimately Biden would be able to make good on his promise to help. Specifically, when President Bush and Prime Minister Singh began the long, arduous task of concluding a civilian nuclear deal, Senator Biden served as a critical ally in the Senate, and even traveled to India (with then-Senators Chuck Hagel and John Kerry) in earlier 2008, before the U.S. Congress had put its stamp of approval on the deal. At each and every juncture, then, Biden was an unabashed proponent of the deal, and certainly was critical to its success.  

Thus, from days after India’s nuclear test to the civilian deal nearly a decade later, Biden was intimately involved in bringing Delhi into the nuclear fold. And while most observers saw Bush’s handling of the U.S.-India relationship as one of his crowning foreign policy achievements, Biden criticized the outgoing administration for not doing enough to engage India. Then, as vice president-elect, he traveled to Pakistan to demand that it help India bring the culprits to justice, and was one of the first U.S. officials to greet Prime Minister Singh when he arrived in Washington in the fall of 2009.

While this will be Biden first trip to India as vice president, rest assured he’ll be well received, and likely to advance U.S.-India relations in important ways.