Since President-elect Joe Biden won a contentious election in which the incumbent Donald Trump refused to concede until after the Capitol Hill riots last week that left 5 dead, his top cabinet appointees have signaled a unifying approach to partnerships and alliances in lieu of Trump’s “America First” rhetoric. Within a week of the election, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted about Biden’s “spectacular victory,” and pledged to work “closely together once again to take India-U.S. relations to greater heights.”
From appointing the first female and half-Indian and African American vice president to nominating a secretary of defense who maintains a regional expertise on the Middle East and a secretary of state and national security advisor who favor alliances, the incoming administration will have significant implications for India- U.S. security relations.
Since Trump was sworn into office in 2017, the political trajectory of expanding security relations between both countries has accelerated. Both Modi and Trump have added their populist flare and personal vigor to to the task of checking Chinese revisionism, particularly in the Indo-Pacific, though New Delhi remains cautious about directly upsetting Beijing. Trump’s 2017 National Security Strategy articulates “India’s emergence as a leading global power and stronger strategic and defense partner.”
A serious debate on great power competition has resurfaced in the United States, leading to Washington doubling down on its relations with New Delhi and Asian allies. New Delhi’s role in the region – and as the world’s most populous democracy – greatly converges with U.S. interests, especially when it comes to ensuring free and unfettered access to the maritime commons, disaster relief, counterpiracy, and counterterrorism.
Under Biden, U.S. policy toward India is expected to maintain a similar policy direction as the Trump administration did on China, albeit with an enhanced emphasis on multilateralism. Reaching a trade deal (which Trump could not), human rights issues in Kashmir, extending visa regimes (extending H-1B work visas in science and technology), and emphasizing climate change cooperation (especially after the U.S. rejoins the Paris Agreement) would be some of the other areas of thrust for Biden’s India policy. A renewed bid for India’s permanent membership in the United Nations Security Council may also emerge during Biden’s time in the White House.
Vice President-elect Kamala Harris’ Indian heritage can considerably strengthen India-U.S. relations, though her public criticism of Indian External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar following the cancellation of a meeting between the minister and members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee might lurk in the background. Trump had abstained from remarking on what India considers internal affairs, understanding that any Indian backlash to unwanted American assertions would stand to complicate the security relationship. The Biden administration should be careful not to push India directly as it formulates a new South Asia policy.
Biden’s selection of former General Lloyd Austin, the former commander of U.S. Central Command, as defense secretary demonstrates the incoming administration’s priorities when it comes to coalition building and multilateral defense engagements. However, in the beginning of his term in the Pentagon, Austin will focus on the dissemination of COVID-19 vaccines, as the U.S. continues to wrestle with the world’s highest number of infections from the disease.
In this context, Biden contends, “We need leaders like Lloyd Austin who understand that our military is only one instrument of our national security… Keeping America strong and secure demands that we draw on all our tools.” Biden also recognizes that “the threats we face today are not the same as those we faced 10 or even five years ago.”
Biden’s nominations for secretary of state, Antony J. Blinken, and national security advisor, Jake Sullivan, delineate a strong affinity for alliances and an effort to assemble a plethora of allies and partners to counterbalance Beijing. Blinken, who served as a former deputy secretary of state under Obama, is anticipated to tend to partnerships and alliances that have been left estranged during Trump’s time in office. As a former national security Advisor to then Vice President Biden, Sullivan was deeply involved in the Obama administration’s “Pivot to Asia.”
During a Hudson Dialogue on American foreign policy and world affairs in July last year, Blinken contended that “strengthening and deepening the relationship with India is going to be a very high priority. It’s usually important to the future of the Indo-Pacific and the kind of order that we all want; it’s fair, stable, and hopefully increasingly democratic and it’s vital to being able to tackle some of these big global challenges.”
He continued, “We made India a so called major defense partner. That was something that we got the congress to approve and that was unique to India. What that did is it basically ensured that when it comes to advance sensitive technology that India needs to strengthen its military, it’s treated on par with our allies and partners.”
Taken together, Biden’s top three cabinet picks demonstrate a level of continuity with Trump’s policy toward India, albeit with some modifications. Whereas the Trump administration hailed “America First” as an overarching principle, the incoming Biden White House will focus on a more multilateral, collective approach to regional security issues. Such a position will indeed align more closely with Modi’s emphasis on “sovereignty and territorial integrity, as well as equality of all nations, irrespective of size and strength… [which] is the foundation of India’s faith in multilateralism and regionalism.”
Saba Sattar is a doctoral candidate of Statecraft and National Security at the Institute of World Politics in Washington D.C. She specializes in U.S.-India security relations across the conflict continuum, from addressing the low-intensity conflict in Kashmir to Chinese revisionism in the Indo-Pacific. She holds an M.A. in Statecraft and National Security Affairs, along with a B.A. in International Affairs and B.S. in Criminology from George Mason University.