Amid the dizzying news that shook up President Donald Trump’s last days in office, the White House declassified a relatively unspectacular new document: its Strategic Framework for the Indo-Pacific.
It was unclear why the White House chose to do that in the middle of a chaotic transition. The framework contained many well-worn cliches of Trump’s foreign policy in the Indo-Pacific: that countering China’s expanding influence is the headline priority; that North Korea should be defanged; and that the U.S. should establish “fair and reciprocal” trade. Some analysts, such as Nitin Pai at the Takshashila Institution, wondered if this was the Washington foreign policy establishment’s way of preempting a softer China policy from President-elect Joe Biden.
Regardless of the White House’s strategic rationale, the framework was still an interesting revelation of how the Trump administration saw the Indo-Pacific’s major powers – and India, in particular. The document asserted India’s role as a key U.S. security partner, including Washington’s aspiration that it will become New Delhi’s “preferred partner” on security issues. It also talked about ensuring that India remains preeminent in South Asia and expressed hopes that it would take the leading role in maintaining Indian Ocean security and increase its engagement in Southeast Asia. It further reaffirmed many of India’s other aspirations, including its Act East policy and New Delhi’s “aspiration to be a leading global power.”
But while the framework speaks at length about India’s security role in the region, the country was conspicuous in its absence in terms of Washington’s more ideological objectives. The document talks about “counterbalancing Chinese models of government” and hopes to achieve this by engaging with “regional democratic partners to demonstrate their own successes and the benefits they have accrued.” Mongolia gets a mention ahead of India in that statement.
And while the paragraphs on India touch upon promoting domestic economic reform in the country, building India’s capacity to meet its challenges along the border with China, and meeting India’s energy needs, the framework does not speak of strengthening any shared values of democracy with New Delhi to counter Chinese influence in the region.
The framework’s treatment of India largely as a military and security partner in the Indo-Pacific is a far cry from Washington’s long-held policy of presenting India – front and center – as the most credible democratic counter to China in the developing world.
But from New Delhi’s point of view this may well even be a relief. The Narendra Modi government has had more than its fair share of run-ins with Democrats over ideological concerns – from the lockdown in Kashmir to the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act. Ever since Biden won the election in November, analysts in both Washington and New Delhi have speculated on the impact that those problems could have on how the incoming Biden administration sees India. Some rightly wonder if Biden might tighten the strings on security aid to India, in the event that more controversies and conflagrations flare up in Indian politics.
So, if India plays an important enough role as a security partner, could Biden be persuaded to overlook these ideological irritants? Does the Washington foreign policy establishment already see India more as a security partner than as a democratic counterweight to China?
That shift in perception might help the Modi government get over the diplomatic and political troubles that preceded Biden’s entry into the White House, but it also brings its own set of challenges.
For years, Washington has invested in building India’s capacity – and promoting its aspirations for regional and global leadership – owing, among other factors, to the strong convergence in ideological interests between the two countries. The United States has long believed that India will stand for the same international norms that Washington has promoted for decades. The U.S. has hence also been tolerant to India’s policy of non-alignment, particularly where India’s ties with countries like Russia and Iran are concerned.
If India is now to play a primarily military role in American foreign policy, it means that New Delhi will need to be far more proactive in countering the Chinese military presence in Southeast Asia, in Afghanistan, and elsewhere – and participate more proactively in American policy initiatives. Some of this may even need to come at the expense of its long-held objective of non-alignment, especially regarding Russia.
Pulling its weight as a U.S. military ally will also be a significant burden on New Delhi, at a time when its own military resources have been stretched thin along its Himalayan borders, faced with the prospect of a “two-front” threat from China and Pakistan.
Biden might choose not to speak up on India’s domestic human rights debates, if his administration thinks that India is an indispensable military ally against China. But if that is Washington’s expectation, New Delhi remains far from getting there.