From the final days of Bill Clinton’s presidency to the single term of Donald Trump and the first 100 days of Joe Biden’s administration, the India-U.S. relationship has seen a broad positive arc, withstanding changes of administration in Washington.
The early days of the Biden administration have been marked by tangible strategic moves such as the convening of the first virtual leadership summit of the Quad countries and invoking “The Spirit of the Quad.” However, as Biden completed his first 100 days in office, two events raised eyebrows in New Delhi, and gave carpers of the India-U.S. partnership a field day, singing swansongs to a hollowed-out Quad.
One concerned a controversial freedom of navigation operation and the apparent transgression of India’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). The second and the more volatile event came in allegations that the Biden administration was delayed in responding to the health crisis unfolding in India. The administration, however, did come around quickly, silencing its critics and proving that the India-U.S. relationship has indeed come a long way since the Cold War, when President Lyndon Johnson dragged his feet in responding to India’s food crisis, using American wheat surplus and the P.L. 480 program as a foreign policy tool.
On April 30, a U.S. Air Force C-5M Super Galaxy transport aircraft landed in Delhi bringing in oxygen cylinders, medical equipment, and COVID-19 test kits. Bowing to mounting pressure, Biden then voiced his support for a waiver on patent rights on COVID-19 vaccines. The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) say they will work closely with the U.S. Embassy in India, India’s health ministries, and India’s Epidemic Intelligence Service staff.
Yet again, reminiscent of the days when India negotiated a nuclear deal with the United States, movers and shakers in the Indian-American community in the United States, including Indian-American politicians, came out in full strength to push the Biden administration to respond. Big tech executives liaised with the Congressional Caucus on India, urging them to ensure that assistance is broadly available to the Indian people. India’s mounting health crisis led the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to set up a separate task force focused on providing oxygen supplies and medical equipment to India.
Like a typical Bollywood drama, all’s well that ends well. Nevertheless, it is imperative to ask: What do these two episodes tell us about the extent and limitations of the India-U.S. relationship? Is the India-U.S. partnership shock-proof, or is it still based on shaky grounds, and prone to dramatic shifts, despite the broader convergence on Indo-Pacific geopolitics?
As the Biden presidency projects a foreign policy for America’s middle class, premised on restoring the healthy of the U.S. economy, how different could it be from Trump’s call for putting “America First”? The contours of U.S. foreign policy are more starkly linked to its domestic imperatives than at any point in recent history. The flux that ensues in the move from Trump’s “America First” mantra to Biden’s “Restoring America,” and its impact on how Washington engages with the rest of the world, will test the diplomatic navigation skills of many countries, including India.
The priority accorded to India in Washington’s strategic view of the Indo-Pacific remains strong. High-level visits and virtual calls between the two have set the tone of how Washington intends to chart the course for its strategic partnership with New Delhi. The defense and security cooperation that have formed the fundamental plank of the partnership will continue to gather steam just as it did during the Trump administration. The “2+2” dialogue between the defense and foreign ministries of the two countries, the signing of foundational agreements, and the many joint working groups under the defense cooperation framework are tangible features of this growing partnership.
Under the Biden administration, the India-U.S. partnership perhaps will exhibit a more multifaceted character. While this could mean more avenues for cooperation, this could also foretell a more complex policymaking environment, requiring New Delhi to be more dexterous in terms of protecting and promoting its interests in dealing with Washington. In what ways the Indian government can forge an outcome-based partnership, with a Biden administration intent on building a greener economy to combat climate change, will remain a challenging task for Indian diplomacy and political leadership. Through the India-U.S. Climate and Clean Energy Agenda 2030 Partnership, the two have set ambitious targets for 2030. To what extent the two countries will be able to align interest and strategies to catalyze greater coordination in making the modifications to infrastructure, technologies, and institutions needed to tackle climate change remains to be seen.
While the Trump administration showed strong commitments to the defense and security foundations of the India-U.S. partnership in the Indo-Pacific, economic ties fell behind, with Trump prioritizing a starkly transactional approach to tariff reciprocity and balance of trade, and losing focus of the strategic imperatives of closer economic ties between the two nations. The Trump era failed to produce a transformative agreement to advance the India-U.S. economic partnership. The widely expected signing of the mini-trade deal fell through despite work on both ends to resolve pending issues on market access and intellectual property embroilments. The rift over tariffs will most likely be pinned on the hopes of a Biden presidency resuming negotiations and resolving outstanding trade issues.
The Biden administration is intent on building a U.S. foreign and domestic policy that caters to the American middle class, restores infrastructure, brings troops back from a two-decade war in Afghanistan, pushes back Chinese and Russian moves against American interests, and creates jobs – all while catering to the ambitious demands of a greener economy. Therefore, policy mandarins in New Delhi will have to think of ways to grasp and deal with the shifting domestic and foreign imperatives that will shape policymaking in Washington.
Challenges can create opportunities for cooperation. Just as the China challenge created a hitherto unseen strategic convergence between India and the United States and fostered a growing defense and security cooperation, hurdles in the domains of trade and economics, health security, and combating climate change could create new avenues of cooperation. A balance of pragmatism and sentiment rebuild bridges recently, before the bad taste of history could set in, and yet again produce echoes of past claims that the U.S. is an unreliable partner. In the final analysis, it be will incumbent upon New Delhi to sense the winds of change sweeping Biden’s America and adroitly navigate the relationship between two complex democracies.