One of the few issues in Washington that has strong bipartisan support is U.S.-India relations. This bipartisan support is reflected by Democratic Party’s presidential candidate Joe Biden and incumbent President Donald Trump both as they vie with each in their plaudits for India, U.S.-India relations, and the Indian American community. In practical political terms, both candidates seek gain from securing favor among the rising voting and financial power of Indian Americans.
Some Republicans contend that presidents from their party are better for the relationship because Democrats harassed India about the development of nuclear weapons during the last century while the breakthrough civil nuclear deal in 2008 occurred during the presidency of Republican George W. Bush. But party affiliation has little to do with assessing which candidate is better for U.S.-Indian relations.
Democrat President Bill Clinton took the first steps to move the U.S. and India away from estrangement, and his 2000 visit to India was a landmark move toward partnership. As the Democratic chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Biden himself guided the U.S.-India civil nuclear deal through the Congress after the Bush administration’s implementing legislation had been dead on arrival. Democratic President Barack Obama is the only American president to have made multiple official visits to India. As chief guest at India’s Republic Day parade in 2015, Obama seemed as close to Modi as Trump did at the Gujarat rally this past February.
Moreover, Trump has repeatedly shown disdain for traditional Republican positions, on trade, immigration, and Russia for example. He has denigrated all that has come before him and proclaimed the uniqueness of his international vision and achievements. Given his predilection for personal aggrandizement and outright hostility to former bedrock Republican principles, it is fruitless to predict his future actions in U.S.-India relations based on party affiliation.
Thus, in order to make a judgment on which candidate is better for U.S.-India relations, it is best to look at the track records and pronouncements of each man on the issues facing the relationship. Broadly speaking, these issues encompass strategic concerns, economic engagement, environment and health challenges, and democratic values.
On security, a mutual challenge from China binds the two nations. Trump has famously taken a belligerent attitude toward that country and tried to make the case that Biden is soft on China. This will be a difficult sell. Although Trump’s erratic behavior toward China has lately fallen on the side of confrontation, Biden has made it clear that he too will hold China to account on technology theft, the South China Sea claims, and territorial aggression such as along the India-China border.
On the question of threats of terrorism emanating from Pakistan, both men have made it clear they stand solidly behind India. On the whole, both candidates seem to hold similar positions when it comes to supporting India on its chief security concerns.
On economic matters, Trump in his visit to India came away empty handed without a much-touted deal to resolve his myriad trade complaints and tariff disputes with India. This failure was papered over by a promise that the two sides were negotiating to come up with a broad deal that would go beyond resolving immediate dissonance when it came to trade and vastly expand U.S.-India economic relations. India is now saying a deal is ready to be signed, the timing being dependent on the U.S. political situation. However, it seems plain that regardless of timing, the agreement will be far short of a broad measure such as a free trade agreement.
Biden is unlikely to employ the “Art of the Deal,” zero-sum tactics favored by Trump. Under Biden, there would likely be a restoration of more traditional means of resolving trade differences with India. This would include a reinvigoration of WTO dispute settlement mechanisms.
Both Trump and Biden will be under considerable domestic pressure to protect their markets during the next four years. Thus, the challenge to closer economic ties will be domestic politics for either candidate. Before any broad-based trade deal can be done, there must be constituencies in both countries supporting international trade as an instrument for increasing domestic prosperity. At the present time there is little support for liberalizing trade in either the United States or India.
On issues of environment and health, there is a clear difference between Trump and Biden. The preeminent environmental issue of our time is climate change. The U.S. and India are already suffering from the fires, floods, droughts, pollution, and debilitating temperatures predicted by scientists as a result of climate change. A greater environmental catastrophe looms. Trump has withdrawn from the Paris climate-change agreement and favors the dismantling of many environmental protection constraints. Biden is the opposite. Thus, to the extent cooperation between the U.S. and India on climate change and the environment is important to voters, Biden has an advantage.
The same seems true of cooperation on health issues. Although there has been consultation between members of the Trump administration and their Indian counterparts on the COVID-19 pandemic, little has been accomplished or even undertaken. Trump did get Modi to release Indian-made hydroxychloroquine, but he has refused to allow the U.S. even to participate in international vaccine development efforts championed by India. Biden has indicated that he would have the U.S. lead international pandemic efforts, presumably in conjunction with India.
Advocates of strong U.S.-India relations have long spoken of the common values of democracy, human rights, and the rule of law as a foundation for the U.S.-India partnership. Trump has indicated that minority suppression in India is India’s domestic issue and that democratic values are not high on his agenda for the U.S.-India relationship. In contrast, Biden has called for the restoration of rights for people of Kashmir, and indicated he would raise human rights issues with the Indian government, as did Obama before him.
The approach of Trump to common democratic values upon which the United States and independent India were both founded may be more compatible with the thinking of the present Indian government as well as large portions of the Indian and U.S. electorates. To this extent, the argument can be made that Trump would be better for U.S.-Indian relations. However, who is best for U.S.-India relations depends on an assessment of the relative importance of the different aspects of the relationship and an assessment of the kind of U.S.-India relationship that is most desirable and likely to endure.
On security, the good news is that the relationship is likely to strengthen independent of who assumes office January next year. If economic relations are considered foundational, then there may be some long-term advantage in the Biden approach, which skews toward multilateralism and is less transactional in nature. However, success in furthering the U.S.-India economic relationship will depend on the willingness of both countries to lessen protectionist sentiments now on the rise in both countries. If one assesses cooperation on environmental and health issues as a central aspect, then Biden is certainly best for U.S.-India relations, since under Trump these issues are largely excluded from the agenda.
It is on the issue of values, that there is the clearest choice to be made. In order to make a more perfect partnership, U.S.-Indian relations must be based on common democratic values. Otherwise the differences that arise will make an enduring alliance impossible.
To paraphrase Lincoln, America is now engaged in a great struggle to determine whether the U.S. or any nation, including India, can long endure as a multiracial, multicultural democracy where all persons are not only created equal but also treated equally. If one accepts both this assessment and the desirability of a positive outcome to this struggle, then Biden is clearly best for U.S.-India relations.
Raymond E. Vickery, Jr. is Senior Associate, Center for Strategic and International Studies; Senior Advisor, Albright Stonebridge Group; Former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Commerce, Trade Development. The opinions expressed in this article are the personal views of the author.