WASHINGTON – The Trump administration has invested significantly in its relationship with India over the past four years, seeing the country as a crucial partner to counteract China’s rise.
Military cooperation and personal friendship between President Trump and India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi – both domineering nationalists – brought New Delhi and Washington closer together.
Now, with President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. about to move to the White House, American diplomats, Indian officials and security experts are redefining their expectations for relations between the world’s two largest democracies.
On the one hand, experts said, the Biden government is likely to pay more attention to India’s controversial internal developments, where Modi’s right-wing party has been steadily consolidating power and becoming openly hostile to Muslim minorities. Mr. Trump practically overlooked.
Others believe that the United States cannot afford to drastically change its policy towards New Delhi because it needs its help to contain China and increasingly values India as a military and trade partner.
“The real openness between the United States and India started with President Clinton, accelerated with President Bush, continued with President Obama and is accelerating again with our President, President Trump,” said Stephen Biegun, the deputy Secretary of State in October. “One of the constants in US-India relations is that every presidential administration here in the United States has left the relationship in an even better way than it inherited.”
Most experts agree that China will be the driving force behind how India’s relationship with Washington turns into a Biden government.
“We need India for a variety of reasons,” said Ashley J. Tellis, a senior member of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. “The most important thing is to balance Chinese power in Asia.”
This year, 20 Indian soldiers were killed in the worst border clash between India and China in decades. As relations between New Delhi and Beijing soured, India strengthened its commitment to a multilateral partnership with the United States, India, Japan and Australia – known as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or Quad.
China criticized this forum as an Asian version of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which aims to directly balance its interests. India, wary of formal alliances and disrupting trade relations with Beijing, initially hesitated to become fully involved.
Biden, who once spoke with optimism about China’s emergence “as a great power”, has become increasingly tough on Beijing, and some analysts said his government would likely use the Quad as a way of ensuring the balance of power in Indo – The Pacific region does not lean much towards China.
“They will keep the Quad,” said Richard Fontaine, the chief executive of the Center for New American Security, adding that the partnership is no longer considered “a meeting in search of an agenda for something real that is happening.”
But some Indian officials fear that the next government will not be as tough on China as the current one and that Biden will take a more nuanced and less favorable stance towards India, analysts said.
The Presidential Transition
“If he is looking for a more lenient approach to China, it will cause New Delhi to have doubts about a mild alliance,” said Brahma Chellaney, professor of strategic studies at the Center for Policy Research, a think tank in New Delhi.
The Biden government will inherit a growing military relationship with India. In the past few months, the United States and India have shared more intelligence and conducted more coordinated military training exercises. Military cooperation is closer between the navies of the two countries; Kenneth J. Braithwaite, secretary of the Navy, visited India last week.
The United States has been trying to increase arms sales to India, but the country’s history of buying arms from nations like France, Israel and Russia has complicated this effort. US officials are concerned about providing equipment to India if there is a risk that members of the Russian army or other foreign agents will have access to it. American and Indian officials signed an agreement to share geographic data in real time via satellite images when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited India in October.
Despite the warm ties, Indian officials also fear that Biden may be less critical of Pakistan, the country’s archrival, than Trump has been. Biden may even ask for support from Islamabad while the United States withdraws troops from Afghanistan. At the beginning of his presidency, Mr. Trump suspended military aid to Pakistan, accusing him of supporting terrorists and giving the United States “nothing but lies and deception”.
In contrast, Trump said little about the growing hostility towards Muslims in India and the divisive policies of Modi’s Hindu nationalist party. The Trump administration has been silent about Modi’s crackdown on Kashmir last year and the passing of an openly anti-Muslim citizenship law. And Modi’s recent pro-market agricultural policies have fueled a farmers’ rebellion that has shaken everyday life in the capital and sparked more anti-government sentiments.
Both Biden – who is considered a strong friend of India since his days as a senator, when he worked to approve the framework of the country’s civilian nuclear deal in 2008 – and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris must be more critical of India’s human record. rights, both in private and in public, experts said.
Ms. Harris, whose mother was Indian and who remained close to that side of the family, has already indicated that she is concerned about Kashmir, a predominantly Muslim area that has long been a point of conflict between India and Pakistan.
Biden’s campaign documents specifically called on the Indian government to “take all necessary measures to restore the rights of all people” in Kashmir. His campaign added that he was also “disappointed” by Modi’s citizenship law.
Some activists in the United States want the Biden government to go even further and warn Indian officials that discontent with some of its current policies could jeopardize how strong India can be as a partner of the United States.
“Human rights first are just as important,” said Simran Noor, president of South Asian Americans Leading Together, an advocacy group in the United States. “The impacts of not solving this now can lead to much worse conditions in the future.”
Another challenging issue is visas. Trump this year suspended H-1B visas for highly skilled workers, a major setback for American technology companies, which employ many Indians, and for the broad Indian diaspora in the United States.
The two countries have also struggled to sign a comprehensive trade agreement, with negotiations suspended over imports of American dairy products and medical devices, such as coronary stents. After two decades with India easing its trade restrictions, Western officials say the country has hardened them for the past two years, embracing Modi’s effort for a “self-sufficient India”.
And many of Biden’s priorities – including climate change – are likely to require India’s cooperation, ensuring that New Delhi remains on the mind of Biden’s top diplomats.
“There is no relationship today between two countries that is as important as the relationship between the US and India,” said Nisha D. Biswal, Obama’s assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asia Affairs. “None of us can go alone.”
Pranshu Verma reported from Washington and Jeffrey Gettleman from Mumbai, India.