India Looks forward to the Stability and Familiarity of a Biden Administration
The news of Joe Biden winning the U.S. presidential elections has generated much optimism in New Delhi and, given her familial ties to India, Kamala Harris as vice president has attracted an unusual amount of public attention across the country. Even though U.S.-India relations fared quite well under the Trump administration, Prime Minister Modi was quick to send congratulations to the new president-elect. Commentators in India have also shifted tone, welcoming back the “traditional” approach to presidency and a return to stable policy, as opposed to Trump’s erratic approach.
Observers of U.S.-India relations all foresee a continuity in the partnership, with Biden building on the advances in ties achieved under the Trump administration. The trajectory of U.S.-India ties has been steadily improving over the past two decades, even under ideologically different U.S. administrations. Policy circles in New Delhi are already highlighting Biden’s track-record of pro-India policies, both as the head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and later as vice president. Biden is not an unknown for Delhi, as Tanvi Madan notes, and many in his cabinet would be known faces for India. Even though he will be constrained by a Republican Senate and face the uphill task of building back the economy in the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic, Biden’s long foreign policy track record is seen as a net positive, and many hope he will be a “foreign policy” president. The initial signs coming out of the Biden camp—recommitment to U.S. leadership and promise to “heal” partnerships and reinvest in alliances and multilateral institutions—are being received well not only in India but among all partners in the Indo-Pacific.
"In the early days of the presidency, India will look for signs of U.S. commitment to the Indo-Pacific and the Quadrilateral security dialogue, which includes the United States, India, Japan and Australia."
Despite these positive signs, there are still some open questions for India and others in the region. The most important one perhaps is: Where will the Indo-Pacific fit in president-elect Biden’s packed foreign policy agenda? This strategic region, which is home to some of the world’s most dynamic economies and critical trade routes, has also become a battleground for influence with the rise of an assertive and at times aggressive China. Even though the Trump administration’s approach was not always consistent and at times counter-productive, the Indo-Pacific did emerge as a key foreign policy priority for Washington. Many now wonder whether Biden’s priorities of repairing the transatlantic partnership and mending ties with European partners will take precedence over India and others in the Indo-Pacific. In the early days of the presidency, India will look for signs of U.S. commitment to the Indo-Pacific and the Quadrilateral security dialogue (Quad), which includes the United States, India, Japan and Australia. In his calls with the leaders from the region, President-elect Biden has confirmed the U.S. interest in a “stable and prosperous” Indo-Pacific, but it remains what shape the Biden administration will give the policy. Will it center solely around China, or will it focus on strengthening alliances and partnerships in the Indo-Pacific? After the transactional approach of the Trump presidency, the region will welcome a U.S. policy that is clear, consistent, and backs rhetoric with resources and viable alternatives to China on trade, technology, and infrastructure.
Second, and on a related note, India will also closely watch Biden’s China policy. The military conflict brewing on the India-China border has shifted India’s security and defense priorities and has been a major factor propelling India to seek closer ties with the United States and other partners. While there is a bipartisan consensus in Washington around many China-related challenges, New Delhi will be watching closely for tone or tactic changes. Will climate change emerge as a more important priority than balancing China? Biden will have to walk a fine line between constructive engagement and confrontation. India, like many in the Indo-Pacific, would like to see a United States that works closely with allies and partners in dealing with China-related challenges.
India will also have to do its part in engaging the Biden administration, and as some argue, work even harder than under the Trump administration. India’s increasing protectionism, difficulties in trade negotiation, and backsliding on human rights will certainly be thorny issues. On a positive note, India has the opportunity to broaden the basis of its partnership with Washington beyond defense and security, by engaging on areas which were largely ignored by the Trump administration, including climate change, reforming global institutions, and global pandemic response.
Overall, Biden does have a unique opportunity to engage democracies and like-minded partners in Europe and the Indo-Pacific on the China challenge. With Europeans waking up and becoming increasingly critical of China’s international and domestic policies, and realizing that they have a role to play in the Indo-Pacific, this could be an area where transatlantic and Indo-Pacific priorities converge.
This is part of our series on the policy implications of the 2020 U.S. elections for U.S. allies—you’ll find the rest of the series HERE.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.