Amid the chorus of ‘democracy wins in the US’ and singing paeans for the oldest President and the ‘first ever woman Vice-President’ of the United States, the overarching feeling is that ‘Biden is in White House and all’s right with the world’. Interestingly, with the changeover in White House, a number of social media ‘experts’ have started posting long lists of do’s and don’ts for Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Some have even sarcastically invoked his ‘Namaste Trump’ event and ‘Ab ki baar Trump sarkar’ slogan. While these jibes and advices are best ignored, there is little doubt that New Delhi should, by now, be prepared to deal with the change of guard in the White House.
The relationship between the two ‘estranged democracies’ has witnessed its own share of highs and lows since India’s Independence. However, the India-US ties have remained sufficiently insulated over the years against major instabilities that arose during leadership changes in both capitals. Significant on part of New Delhi will be to visualise the road map that the Biden administration will sketch at a time when the US is seen as experiencing the worst kind of racial schism, and an aggressive China is weaving its web across the continental and maritime realms through the Belt & Road Initiative (BRI) connecting Eurasia and the Indo-Pacific. What’s also uncertain is Washington’s post-pandemic economic and security architecture, which is set to evolve from unknown frontiers.
What would drive the India-US relationship
The India-US relationship hinges on three aspects that both countries need to recognise — the domestic compulsions of the two democracies, the regional factors, and an emerging post-pandemic global order. All three factors are subject to geopolitical dynamics. Unlike India, the US does not have a socio-culturally and politically heterogeneous ‘region’ to deal with. The Trump era witnessed troubled relationship with neighbouring Mexico more due to domestic political compulsions than any dogmatic or ideological differences.
According to news reports, Biden’s Secretary of State-designate Antony Blinken, during the confirmation hearing is reported to have said the new administration will engage with Israel and the Arab States before reviving the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) that Barack Obama had signed with Iran, and Trump had walked out of.
Even though the US State Department was convinced that the JCPOA was working and had limited Iran’s nuclear enrichment programme, Trump unilaterally revoked the deal and imposed sanctions on the country. Biden has indicated reviving the US-Iran deal but only if Tehran agrees to comply with the provisions. Tehran has been advocating a hard line just to bargain for the revocation of the sanctions and tide over the economic crisis. Here is where New Delhi gets involved. The earlier US sanctions on Tehran (1979, 1987, 2006 and 2018) left New Delhi with little options to carry on trade with Iran and use its ports. And India’s forced withdrawal resulted in facilitating China’s entry in the region and Beijing striking trade deals with Iran because unlike New Delhi, the latter was under no obligation to respect US sanctions.
It would be in India’s interest to convince the new occupant of the White House that sanctions as a foreign policy tool have seldom worked to achieve the desired objectives. Besides, New Delhi has already begun working out limited engagements with Iran on Chabahar port, which is vital for India considering the China-Pakistan axis and the proposed US withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Biden and China
The US National Security strategy document released in 2017 clearly recognised “India as an emerging leading global power and stronger strategic and defense partner”. The threat of a ‘not so peaceful rise’ of China has brought some kind of strategic camaraderie between India and the US. But New Delhi should not forget that the US has its own trajectory of relationship with China, based on its national interest. Even at the height of the US-China trade war, exactly one year ago in January 2020, Trump inked the Phase One trade deal, obliging China to commit to buy an additional $200 billion worth of American goods and services by 2021, and crack down on business practices that the Trump administration had termed objectionable.
Biden’s China policy will have far-reaching consequences for the region, especially for the emerging Indo-Pacific structure that has become the new theatre of power contestation between Washington and Beijing. The Cold War posed serious constraints for India pursuing the non-aligned path with the US, insisting on a ‘if you are not with us you are against us’ policy. In the changed circumstances, the two democracies will have to understand each other’s constraints, work towards building a coalition of democracies, and include States that are committed to freedom of navigation and a free, open and rules-based world order.
Closer home, unlike the US, India is China’s neighbour and the challenge is to work out an anti-access and area denial strategy, taking into consideration China’s growing sphere of influence in our immediate and extended neighbourhood. Tibet, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Afghanistan are waiting for solutions probably to be found in the strategic partnership between India and the US. The challenge is how far the Biden administration will go when it comes to antagonising China while standing firm with the core principles of freedom, human rights and democracy.
Seshadri Chari is the former editor of ‘Organiser’. Views are personal.