India-US Relations: Ties will become stronger under the new US administration, says expert

Dr Bappaditya Mukherjee, Former Faculty State University of New York, Geneseo, shares his views on various topics related to India-US relations.

us india relations, us elections, joe biden impact on india us relations
On trade policy, we should expect some shift with the incoming Biden administration. (File image)

President-elect Joe Biden and his team are now all set to take over office on January 20, 2021. The incoming President-elect besides the domestic demands is expected to focus on the global economy, G-20 and other international organizations, as well as the Asia-Pacific Region. In the first six months, his presidency is expected to focus on the US-China relations, the South China Sea, and other related issues.

Dr Bappaditya Mukherjee, Former Faculty State University of New York, Geneseo, shares his views on various topics related to India-US relations

How will the India-US relations stand with Biden-Harris in office?

India-US relations are one of the rare policy areas on which there is a bipartisan policy consensus, particularly in the case of defence cooperation. We must remind ourselves that the US took the significant step of designating India as a “major defence partner” way back in December 2016. At that time, Biden was the Vice-President in the Obama administration with considerable sway in foreign policymaking. This designation has allowed India to receive license-free access to dual-use American technologies ever since. Biden will build on the number of arms sales and defence agreements that were formalized under the Trump administration.

On trade policy, we should expect some shift with the incoming Biden administration. The Trump administration’s worldview was one of “America First economic nationalism” that routinely undermined international institutions. In contrast, the shared perspective of the incoming policymakers under Biden can best be summed up as “neoliberal globalism”. This will mean a greater commitment to multilateral trade as a pathway to US prosperity. Unlike the wholesale rejection of the World Trade Organization (WTO) under Trump, Biden’s foreign policy team will actively try to make the WTO function. The Biden administration considers the enforcement of global trading rules as a legitimate part of global governance. Hence, India may feel greater pressure to abide by these rules than was the case under Trump.

Do you think with Trump already announcing he will contest the 2024 elections, India will play safe?

Four years is an eternity in international politics. I sure hope no one in South Block is thinking along these lines. In any case, it is impossible to predict the perspective that Trump will hold on issues relevant to South Asia and India four years from now. India has invested very heavily in the strategic partnership with the US over the past decade. Hopefully, the strong diplomatic support given by the Trump administration since the outbreak of the Ladakh crisis with China will continue under Biden as well. India’s US policy is partly driven by the compulsions of its deteriorating relations with China. Stronger ties with the US can come in very handy for India during its current and forthcoming negotiations with China.

What about China?

Biden is a moderate legislator with four decades of governmental experience. Although he shares many of the concerns regarding China that drove Trump’s policies, he is also likely to be far more pragmatic in opening alternate channels of communication. Biden is aware that a US-China deal is essential for any meaningful progress on global governance to combat climate change. Biden differs from Trump in treating climate change as an existential crisis. This is why such a high profile figure like former Secretary of State, John Kerry has been put in charge of this issue area.

What about Iran sanctions & Russia?

The Trump administration has clearly left behind a mess in the US policy towards Iran. In 2018 he abrogated the Iran nuclear deal. He also put in tougher sanctions. By all accounts, the sanctions have proved ineffective in compelling Iran to reverse its nuclear program. Although Biden has stated publicly that he would like to restore the status quo ante on the nuclear deal, it remains an open question whether the Iranians will come back to the negotiating table. Biden will also find it difficult to build domestic consensus with recalcitrant Republicans on a new deal. For India’s sake, we should all hope that US-Iran relations improve under the Biden administration. Iran is crucial to India’s grand strategic requirements that involve seeking a sea and the land route to the Middle East and Central Asia bypassing Pakistan. US sanctions on Iran have hurt India’s interests in a variety of ways. These include the disruptions of India’s energy imports from Iran and the India-Iran bilateral trade.

Under Trump, US-Russia were always a subject of heavy speculation in US domestic politics. The controversies created a policy paralysis in Washington with important items in limbo. These include nuclear arms reduction negotiations, US sanctions and military assistance to Ukraine. Biden might be more provocative on these issues than Trump who seems to revel in the personal equation he seemingly shared with President Putin. The Biden administration will also raise democracy and human rights questions more often across the board with authoritarian regimes like Russia. India should be able to safeguard its interests with both these powers irrespective of the state of US-Russia relationship in the near-term.

Finally, H-1B Visa

Given the high number of skilled Indian immigrants in the US, the H1-B policy of the incoming administration is of huge interest. This is particularly the case after the harsh orientation of the Trump administration that created suffering and dislocation across the board for all categories of immigrants. Based on public statements by the Biden administration and the heavy support of the Indian-American community to the Democratic Party ticket, it can be surmised that there will be a reversal of the Trump-era policies. How far Biden will go in increasing the H1-B quota for Indian-origin immigrants is anyone’s guess. However, the Biden administration will definitely try to portray itself as more compassionate and cosmopolitan than that of Trump.

Meanwhile …

According to a new issue paper from the US-based Asia Society Policy Institute titled “Nature and Nurture: How the Biden Administration Can Advance Ties with India,” Biden, who deemed India a “natural partner” while campaigning will have the task of upgrading a mature relationship at a time of new global dynamics and challenges.

The paper which outlines the competing pressures currently shaping US-India relations has been authored by ASPI Associate Director Anubhav Gupta and it provides a blueprint for how the incoming US administration can advance bilateral ties to the next level, nurturing Biden’s idea of a “natural” relationship.

The report has outlined 10 recommendations to strengthen the US-India partnership which states that there should be the scope of the relationship be expanded to elevate health, digital, and climate cooperation. Also, to renew the US leadership and regional consultation in the face of China’s rise and to turn the page to a positive commercial agenda that focuses on reform and openness.

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