Flashpoints | Diplomacy | Security | South Asia

Assessing the Trajectory of India-US Ties Under Biden

A series of high-level calls, including between Biden and Modi, suggest a possible trajectory for relations between India and the new U.S. administration.

Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan
Assessing the Trajectory of India-US Ties Under Biden
Credit: Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz

U.S. President Joe Biden and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke for the first time this week after Biden took office in January. This was the second call between the two leaders, the first being in November after Biden’s victory in the presidential election. Following the call, Modi tweeted to say that the two leaders are committed to a “rules-based international order.” In late January, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Indian Minister of External Affairs Dr. S. Jaishankar also had a call that was thought to be useful in identifying the important strategic convergences between India and the United States. Just a couple of days prior, there was another call between the Indian National Security Adviser Ajit Doval and his U.S. counterpart, Jake Sullivan, which had a great deal of emphasis on shared values that bring the United States and India closer. 

The recent Biden-Modi call was important for a number of reasons, including both what was covered and what was left out of the respective readouts released by the White House and the Indian Ministry of External Affairs. On its own, the call was significant because the two leaders connected early and both reiterated the importance of a free and open Indo-Pacific. The Indian readout had an additional reference to “inclusive” in its characterization of the Indo-Pacific, possibly to keep the door open for Russia or to reassure Beijing that it is not anti-China.

Biden made a strong pitch for closer strategic engagement through a number of mechanisms, including the Quad. For all the wariness about whether the Biden administration will continue with the Indo-Pacific reference and the Quad, Washington appears to be more certain in how it wants to address the China challenge. The White House categorically stated that the U.S. and India will work toward building “close cooperation to promote a free and open Indo-Pacific, including support for freedom of navigation, territorial integrity, and a stronger regional architecture through the Quad.” The Indian side did not acknowledge the Quad in this readout, though it did in a subsequent one by Jaishankar. 

Blinken, in his call with Jaishankar, also emphasized the “importance of working together” through regional minilaterals such as the Quad. Jaishankar, in a tweet, acknowledged the comprehensive discussion he had with his U.S. counterpart and their discussions on issues pertaining to the Indo-Pacific and the cooperation through groupings such as the Quad. 

While the call between Doval and Sullivan did not overtly mention the Quad, they underlined the importance of the two countries being “leading democracies” that were “uniquely positioned to work closely on regional and international issues including combating the scourge of terrorism, maritime security, cyber security and peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific region and beyond.” The two also agreed to “further expand the Comprehensive Global Strategic Partnership.” 

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That the Quad leaders are also planning a possible virtual summit meeting is significant. While India may still be weighing its options for the level of it commitment to the Quad, one can be assured that even if the current military disengagement on the Sino-Indian border in Ladakh were to go as per Defense Minister Rajnath Singh’s statement, India’s China challenge is hardly gone. Given the long-term strategic nature of the China threat, India might do well to strengthen and nurture its engagement with the U.S., the Quad, and other strategic minilaterals in the Indo-Pacific. 

While China may be the strategic glue holding India and the U.S. together, there could be some wrinkles in the relationship. These have to do with the increasingly polarized Indian domestic polity, which as pointed out by C. Raja Mohan, has found support outside. Also, the U.S. emphasis on democratic institutions and norms across the world and that “a shared commitment to democratic values is the bedrock for the U.S.-India relationship” did not find any space in the Indian readout of the Biden-Modi phone call. This could be an issue that may put India in an awkward situation. 

Nevertheless, China has helped a great deal in cementing the foundation of a strong strategic relationship even under a Biden administration. There were more than a few concerns in India and elsewhere about the Biden administration’s approach to China. Even though there appeared to be a bipartisan consensus on China in the U.S., there were concerns in many Asian capitals that disagreements among Democrats could cast a shadow on how to handle China. There are some who believe that the U.S. needs to work with China to address global issues like climate change. But since Biden took office, those concerns have been by and large put to rest through continued tough statements toward China and fairly open support to Taiwan. The U.S. under Trump had strengthened ties with Taiwan, with significantly increased weapon sales, stepped up economic cooperation, and several high-level political visits that strengthened political relations. This trend is likely to stay, going by the first meeting between Taiwanese representative Bi-khim Hsiao and acting Assistant Secretary of State Sung Kim at the State Department.

There appears to be a growing sense in Washington, D.C. that there is a need to address Beijing as a threat and that the time to confront China is now. The calls for tougher action on China could translate into continuing rivalry between Washington and Beijing on trade and the economy, as well as technology and security issues. This could mean continuing the momentum in the U.S. relations with like-minded partners in the Indo-Pacific. 

On overall India-U.S. ties, it appears that there will be continuity despite possible stylistic changes that may come with the Biden administration. Substantively speaking, the Biden administration is likely to foster closer positive strategic ties. Like other Asian countries, India is looking for a certain amount of steadiness and predictability in the relationship, but this steadiness is likely to come with a degree of criticism on domestic issues, which could be a problem for India. Security and defense ties are likely to grow now that India has signed all the four foundational defense agreements. Changing security dynamics in the Indian Ocean Region and the broader Indo-Pacific could enhance the quantity and quality of India-U.S. security and military engagements.