Over the coming months, U.S. President Joe Biden and his team will have numerous diplomatic bridges to mend, alliances to repair, and egos of foreign leaders to massage.
One partner that won’t require such hand-holding is India. Despite former President Donald Trump’s ire at New Delhi’s restrictive trade policies, he generally supported India as a counterweight to China and embraced Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi as few previous U.S. leaders have. Amid New Delhi’s growing apprehension toward Chinese aggression, Washington created the strategic convergence that had long been advocated by a U.S. military establishment eager to balance Chinese power. For the first time in history, a closer strategic partnership between the United States and India is within grasp.
Yet the relationship isn’t without its challenges. Both countries face difficult recoveries in the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic, as well as growing protectionist sentiment at home that could complicate commercial ties. The United States’ patience as India drags its feet on domestic economic reform and market opening will wear thin as Washington aligns its foreign policy with domestic priorities, and as New Delhi’s policies reflect an increasingly inward-looking mood. What’s more, the long-standing bedrock of their relationship – shared democratic values – has come under severe strain in both countries.
The incoming Biden administration will have to chart a new path for U.S. ties with India. That path will lie somewhere in the vast gulf between traditional strategic altruism, whereby Washington actively supported India’s rise in hopes it could help balance China, and the transactional “America first” policy followed by Trump. And Biden will have to find that path in the midst of tremendous global volatility and political instability at home.
Nevertheless, as I argue in a new Asia Society Policy Institute report, Biden has a unique opportunity to take advantage of the current moment and expand the scope of the U.S. relationship with India. In order to fully capitalize on the opportunity, he needs to pay attention to the following.
First, he needs to ensure that the convergence on China does not go to waste.
Through its aggression along the de facto border with India last year, Beijing managed to accomplish something that years of U.S. persuasion could not: India defining China as an outright rival. But despite convergence with New Delhi on the China threat, Washington should not think that a deeper strategic alignment is inevitable. India will continue to maintain its foreign policy autonomy as it navigates an uncertain geopolitical landscape. One reason is that some in India see the United States in decline and not to be relied on; another is skepticism that Biden is willing to be tough on China.
This latter concern may be unfounded in light of today’s pervasive, bipartisan anti-China sentiment in Washington. But to reassure New Delhi and build a closer partnership, Biden will need to prove that he is willing to take on Beijing as he promised on the campaign trail.
This will mean continuing the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue with Australia, India, and Japan and upgrading bilateral and trilateral engagement and cooperation with other allies and partners in the region.
Ultimately, to keep India motivated to take on Beijing, the United States will need to abide by three principles. First, the United States must return to a visible leadership role in regional and multilateral organizations aimed at maintaining regional peace and security, protecting the global commons, and upholding democratic values. Showing up at ASEAN and East Asia Summits, something the United States did not do last year, will merely be the start.
Second, the United States should continue to apply economic pressure on Beijing to reform and open its economy, as Trump tried and ultimately failed to do. Washington will also need to stand up for allies and partners that face Chinese bullying – not only in cases relevant to India. Beijing’s recent use of trade as a geopolitical cudgel against Australia, for example, must be countered. Indian policymakers will be watching closely to see if Biden puts real pressure on China to support an ally such as Australia and to defend the rules-based trading system.
Next, the United States should work on expanding the scope of the U.S.-Indian relationship. The Biden administration faces the curious problem of the U.S. having already come a long way in the area where the relationship has been strongest – security and strategic ties. Last year, the two nations signed an agreement that would give India real-time access to U.S. geospatial intelligence, the last of four foundational defense agreements. And the U.S. military conducts more joint exercises with India than with any other non-NATO partner, such as last week’s Sea Dragon anti-submarine exercise with Australia, Japan, and Canada.
With so much progress already made in the security sphere, the easiest way to take the U.S.-India relationship to the next level is to expand its scope while avoiding the most contentious economic issues. The new Biden team should revive the health and energy partnership to combat common challenges such as COVID-19 and climate change.
Biden is likely to undo many of Trump’s nativist policies that clamped down on Indian immigration to the United States. But the new administration will face a more difficult road on trade, at a time India has grown more inward-looking. In the past year, New Delhi has raised tariffs, imposed a digital services tax, and announced a new “self-reliant India” campaign that some worry signals a turn toward the failed attempts at autarky of the past.
During his visit to India in 2013 as vice president, Biden suggested that $500 billion in bilateral trade between the two countries was possible. With imports and exports totaling only $149 billion in 2019, that seems out of reach today – all the more so given India’s economic struggles in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and its increasingly protectionist policies. Still, Biden should set an optimistic tone for the economic relationship that contrasts with the recriminations of the past four years. Washington should bolster cooperation on clean energy, health, and the digital economy, in order to give the commercial relationship positive momentum.
And finally, Washington needs to burnish its brand as a regional leader and stalwart democracy.
As China has drastically enhanced its global influence over the past few years, the United States and India have inadvertently aided Beijing’s cause by depleting their own brand. For years, the United States’ strongest rejoinder to Chinese claims of superiority has been the principle of openness at home and abroad – a principle shared by India. But in recent years, both countries’ democratic backsliding has undermined their reputations. Trump’s term was a continuous onslaught on independent institutions, the free press, and democratic processes, culminating in the horrific storming of the U.S. Capitol on January 6. Likewise, Modi’s attack on independent institutions and his increasingly majoritarian politics have undercut India’s soft power and blemished its democratic bona fides.
And while China has consolidated its global economic engagement – most recently through the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) and has successfully concluded talks about an investment agreement with the European Union – the United States pulled out of the Trans Pacific Partnership, while India withdrew from RCEP negotiations at the last moment. This is not what leadership looks like.
Biden will not be able to undo all these mistakes. But he can propel the United States’ return to the kind of economic and political openness that has always been the foundation for this strategically critical relationship.
Anubhav Gupta is associate director at the Asia Society Policy Institute, New York.