As the Trump Presidency comes to a close, the foreign policy priorities and decisions of his prospective successor, Joe Biden, is eliciting widespread curiosity among Indian policymakers, commentators and informed citizens. The reality is that the broad contours of the India-US bilateral relationship are likely to stay unchanged under a Biden administration as a bipartisan consensus on India policy has existed in Washington over the past few years. Consequently, India has gradually inched towards becoming a key strategic partner of the US.
The incoming Biden administration is unlikely to reverse many of the gains in India-US ties that were made under the Trump administration. Defence cooperation pacts like the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA), Industrial Security Annex (ISA), voluminous arms sales agreements and joint military exercises signal the growing proximity of the two nations in the security realm. The COMCASA and ISA are designed to increase military interoperability, smooth sharing of advanced technology and collaboration in defence production between India and the US.
As the violent clashes of India with China at Galwan have seriously derailed India-China ties over the past few months, the India-US security relationship has taken on greater significance. The public posture of the US under the Trump administration on the India-China border dispute over the past few months has been very beneficial for India. The most recent instance of this support came at the end of the 3rd India-US 2+2 dialogue in October this year when Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo announced that the US will stand with India as it faces threats to its sovereignty and liberty.
In previous conflicts of a similar nature, the US position had been very cautious. On the contrary, this time it privately offered non-kinetic military assistance to India to counter China. For example, the US has offered to help India with intelligence to track Chinese positions. Moreover, senior US officials have been extraordinarily vocal in condemning China’s actions and wholeheartedly supported the Indian position. India has stepped up its naval exercises with the US in the Andaman and Nicobar. The joint exercises by Indian and US navies send strong signals to China not only about India’s increasing international clout but also its changed domestic political outlook. These joint exercises with the US have helped India signal its intent to counter China’s hegemonic moves in the region. The other major development has been the setting up of an informal counter-hegemonic coalition against China known as Quad, consisting of India, US, Japan and Australia. Although the Quad does not overtly allude to China, it is very clear that this coalition is designed to check the designs of a rising China in the Indo-Pacific region.
It seems unlikely that the Biden administration will reverse course on such initiatives taken during the Trump era. It is a commonly held view in Washington that India can be used as a counterweight to China. Biden and his team of senior advisors have signalled that they may be a bit more conciliatory towards China than Trump. However, the structural forces that are driving the US-China rivalry on trade and competition in high technology may no longer permit Biden to adopt the path of reconciliation with China.
Trump’s “America First” worldview and policy choices are leaving a legacy of a destabilized international trading system. The dispute resolution mechanism and its Appellate Body (AB) at the World Trade Organization (WTO) have been rendered dysfunctional. India has to take advantage of the ideological shift in US foreign policy from Trump’s outlook to a multilateral approach under Biden to play an active role in repairing them. This is in India’s national interest as it relies heavily on the AB to help it resolve disputes with key trading partners like the US and the European Union (EU). During the campaign, the Biden foreign policy advisory group, led by the incoming Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken was severely critical of Trump’s decisions to undermine the WTO. Throughout his term, Trump undermined the WTO’s dispute resolution mechanism that had worked well for over 25 years. He refused to appoint judges to the AB meant to hear trade disputes and starved it of funds.
Trump’s latest stab at derailing the WTO was the blocking of the appointment of a consensus candidate for the post of WTO Director General (DG), Ms Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala of Nigeria. Fortunately, the decision on the appointment of the new DG has been postponed for now. Trump will no longer have a say on this issue. Ideologically, Biden and his advisors are likely to reverse course on these destructive steps. With the support of the incoming Biden administration, Ms Okonjo-Iweala is highly likely to be appointed the next DG. This will be a meaningful first step to signal a positive US orientation towards the WTO. However, repairing the damage caused to the Appellate body would not be easy. If the Biden administration decides to undertake the revival of the AB, the ensuing process will take several months of arduous multilateral negotiations. This gives India a great opportunity to join forces with a multilaterally oriented Biden administration to make the AB functional again.
Biden is likely to continue the Afghan peace process started under President Trump. India is understandably wary of the regional ramifications of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan after a military intervention lasting nineteen years. The Biden administration will remain largely preoccupied with the COVID pandemic and the economic crisis at home. Therefore, Afghanistan may not be as much of a priority for the Biden team. Therefore, the policy status quo is likely to be maintained under Biden and the US withdrawal will continue unimpeded. The current news coming out of Afghanistan is not very encouraging. Alim Latifi reported in Foreign Policy last month that the peace process has empowered the Taliban. As US forces are drawing down, there has been a corresponding escalation of attacks by the Taliban on Afghan security forces, roadways and other infrastructure particularly in the Southern provinces of Helmand and Kandahar.
If the security situation continues to deteriorate in Afghanistan, the US will be tempted to increase its reliance on Pakistan to smoothen its exit. Pakistan’s leverage with the Taliban has come in handy for the US to facilitate the peace process thus far.
In such a transactional relationship, Pakistan will be well-placed to claim certain concessions from the US. For instance, it can demand that the US use its influence to take Pakistan off the grey list of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF). Established in 1989, the FATF was set up by the G7 countries in 1989 to combat money laundering. From India’s perspective, the FATF decision to put Pakistan on its grey list is a welcome development. The FATF’s grey list is a mechanism to identify countries that are alleged to have permitted a conducive environment for financing terror networks and money laundering. The naming of Pakistan on FATF’s grey list was a huge diplomatic success for India. This categorization of Pakistan by the FATF advances India’s long-held position in the international community that Pakistan is a state supporter of terrorism. If the US were to engineer a reversal of the FATF decision on Pakistan, it would be a setback for India-US counterterrorism cooperation. This will be a pity since India-US counterterrorism perspectives have begun to converge in recent years. For instance, the designation by the US State Department of the Pakistan-based group, Hizbul Mujahideen (HM) as a “foreign terrorist organisation” (FTO) following Prime Minister Modi’s US visit in 2017 was highly significant. Moreover, counterterrorism has increasingly become a larger component of the annual India-US military exercises. One of the explicit goals of YudhAbhyas 2019 was to develop specialized drills oriented towards counterinsurgency and counterterrorism in urban settings.
Finally, the ensuing shifts in US foreign policy will have important consequences for India’s relations with Iran. India has made it a priority to ensure direct connectivity through Iran to Afghanistan, Central Asia and the Caucasus region while bypassing Pakistan. Access to Iran and Central Asia are also crucial for India’s energy needs. This was one of the key motives of India’s investment in Iran’s Chabahar port located on the Gulf of Oman. When the Trump administration abrogated the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in May 2018, also known as the Iran Nuclear Deal, this was a setback for Indian interests. Along with the simultaneous announcement of economic sanctions by the US, the disintegration of the Iran nuclear deal put a spanner in the works of India’s involvement in the Chabahar project. During the Trump era, India found it increasingly difficult to balance its strategic partnership with the US with its traditionally robust bilateral ties with Iran. Although India was able to get exemptions from US sanctions in its dealings with Iran, the disruption in India-Iran relations was very damaging to India’s interests.
Fortunately, thanks to these exemptions, India was able to continue to invest in the Chabahar project that is a critical cog in India’s regional grand strategy. India was able to use the Chabahar port to ship goods to Afghanistan. However, the deterioration in US-Iran relations had several negative outcomes for India. US sanctions made it nearly impossible for Indian firms to participate in the Chabahar project. India’s participation in the accompanying rail line that is meant to connect the Chabahar port to Zahedan in Afghanistan was also severely impacted by the sanctions. In July this year, Iran announced that it was moving ahead with the rail project on its own. Moreover, India’s access route to Central Asia through Iran was essentially blocked. India’s energy imports from Iran declined precipitously. As India’s third-largest supplier, this breakdown had a deleterious economic impact on India. India-Iran bilateral trade that relied on a rupee-rial exchange mechanism was also severely impacted.
Therefore, India’s vital interests will be served if US-Iran tensions are reduced under the incoming Biden administration. As Vice President, Biden was a key member of the Obama administration that forged the JCPOA with the five permanent members of the Security Council and Germany, also known as P-5+1. Biden has repeatedly expressed a fervent desire to restore the status quo ante on the JCPOA. Based on recent events, one can surmise that Indian policymakers are assuming that Biden will open negotiations with Iran to salvage the JCPOA. This will be welcomed heartily in Indian policy circles. Last week, diplomatic representatives from India and Uzbekistan held trilateral talks with Iran to discuss the possibility of accelerating work on the Chabahar project.
(The author is a former faculty at the State University of New York, Geneseo. Views are personal.)