The question many Indians are asking is whether a Joe Biden presidency in the United States would be better for New Delhi than a second term for Donald Trump.
Here is how Joe Biden has acted towards India in the past two decades.
In an interview with Rediff India Abroad in December 2006, Joe Biden had said, “My dream is that in 2020, the two closest nations in the world will be India and the United States.” He was then the Ranking Member in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC), and was set to become the Chair of the Committee in January 2007, since the Democrats had flipped the Senate in the November 2006 election.
Biden had also just piloted, along with his Republican counterpart, committee chairman Richard Lugar, with a 85-12 vote, the enabling resolution that permitted moving forward with the negotiations on the breakthrough India-US civil nuclear cooperation agreement. This was eventually signed in October 2008. In the intervening two years, which saw several challenges to the deal in both countries, Biden had steadfastly heralded support in the US Senate, particularly from opposing members in his own party. This included then Senators Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, who were influenced by concerns of the non-proliferation lobby. During an earlier incarnation as SFRC Chair, in 2001, Biden had written a letter to President George Bush in August 2001, calling for the removal of economic sanctions against India, which had been imposed since India’s nuclear tests of May 1998.
Speaking at the Mumbai Stock Exchange on 24 July 2013, during his visit to India as US Vice President, Biden had reiterated President Obama’s articulation that he saw the India-US relationship “as a defining partnership in the century ahead”. At an event last month commemorating India’s Independence Day, the Democratic presidential nominee said he would “stand with India” and that a Biden administration will “confront the threats (India) faces in its own region and along its border”, and there will be no tolerance for terrorism, cross border or otherwise.
Biden is so far leading by 7-10 per cent on most national polls in the US, though the lead in several of the battleground states is lower. Much will also depend on how the three presidential debates between September 29 and October 22 play out. In 2016, Hillary Clinton was seen as leading, aided also by her performance in the third debate with Donald Trump on 19 October 2016, but the tide turned soon.
Clinton won the popular vote by a margin of 3 per cent, but lost in the electoral college, with conventionally Democratic leaning states such as Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania flipping for Trump and his “America First” promise of bringing back jobs lost in globalisation.
A Biden victory, similarly, is not assured, but possible.
In the March/April issue of Foreign Affairs, Biden had written that one of his first steps as president would be to have the US rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement, and convene an early summit of major emitters. He has also pledged that the US would work towards net zero carbon emissions by 2050.
India and the US had worked closely together in the run-up to the Paris Climate Agreement in 2015, where India, along with France, had initiated the International Solar Alliance. Trump has called climate change a hoax. India, which is impacted severely by climate change, will find opportunity in a Biden administration, to make green technology partnership a good basis to secure new supply chain arrangements in a post-Covid world.
Biden has also said that during his first year in office, the US will “organise and host a Global Summit for Democracy… galvanising significant new country commitments… in fighting corruption, defending against authoritarianism, and advancing human rights”. He also stated that he would involve civil society, the private sector including technology companies and social media giants, in this effort.
Opportunity for India
It will be both a challenge and opportunity for India. At one level, it will be a platform that will target Chinese authoritarian practices, including in Tibet, Xinjiang and Hong Kong. US leaders, including Biden, have repeatedly articulated India’s democracy and the commonality of values as a bedrock for the India-US relationship, and assessed this favourably in context of China and strategies for the Indo- Pacific.
However, in the Biden campaign agenda for the Muslim-American community, there is a call for restoring “rights for all people” in Kashmir, an assertion that restrictions on dissent, shutting or slowing down internet weaken democracies, and that Biden is “disappointed by NRC in Assam, CAA”, which is “inconsistent with the country’s long tradition of secularism and with sustaining a multi-ethnic and multi-religious democracy”.
This is not just a reflection of the influence of the progressive wing of the party. Democratic chair of House Foreign Affairs and Ranking Member of Senate Foreign Relations Committees have sent a joint letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, expressing concern with India’s Citizenship Amendment Act. Several Democratic Indian-Americans in Congress, including vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris, and one of the rising progressive stars, Pramila Jayapal, have also spoken critically on these issues.
Both Biden and his main foreign policy adviser Anthony Blinken have said that any differences on this will be handled as a dialogue among friends and partners. In any case, the US has much to account for on its own, including issues related to voter suppression, gerrymandering of voting districts, and violence against African-Americans and other minorities.
Republicans vs Democrats
On account of longstanding Democratic activism on human rights and climate change issues, many in India wonder whether a Democratic or a Republican president is better for New Delhi.
It is useful to recall that it was a Republican Richard Nixon who had supported Pakistan in the 1971 conflict, and embarked on secret overtures in a bid to reconcile with China blindsiding India. It was a Republican Ronald Reagan who had strengthened Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) by providing support and funds through it for “militant jihad” to drive the Soviet Union out of Afghanistan. India suffered a blowback through ISI-sponsored terrorism, first in Punjab and then in Jammu and Kashmir. On the other hand, it was a Democratic Bill Clinton who supported India during the 1999 Kargil conflict, and initiated the new relationship with India through a pathbreaking visit in 2000.
It was a Republican George Bush who transformed the framework for the relationship with the Civil Nuclear Cooperation Agreement. But it was a Democratic Obama who was the first US President to visit India twice in his tenure, once to attend the Republic Day function in 2015, and he articulated support for India’s permanent membership of United Nations Security Council (UNSC), and declared it to be a ‘major defence partner’. But it has been a Republican Donald Trump who has been unreasonable on trade issues, taking away GSP benefits, but has spoken highly of the relationship, and authorised higher level technology releases. What matters more, clearly, is the geopolitical context within which the bilateral relationship is placed.
Joe Biden’s dream
Compared to Trump, Joe Biden will be more understanding on trade and economic issues, while calling for more reforms and opening up. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has also spoken of India being a trusted partner, and part of global supply chains, while strengthening self-reliance. A Biden presidency will also be more accommodating on H1B and family visa issues, as well as the problems of the nearly five lakh undocumented persons in the US who are of Indian origin.
A Biden administration will explore common areas of work with China, on climate change and trade, but will be guided also by the deep recognition of economic and technological rivalry, and unfair Chinese practices. On 3 September, Biden issued a statement on Tibet, promising that he will meet with the Dalai Lama (which Trump has not done), and appoint a special coordinator for Tibet issues.
A Biden administration can also be expected to be more globally influential, with its declared intent to work with allies and partners, and in multilateral frameworks. Trump is seen as having weakened US influence in parts of Europe and elsewhere. In a recent UNSC vote on Iran, 13 countries, including US allies United Kingdom, France and Germany, did not vote with the US.
Trump and Biden will present differing opportunities and challenges: on trade, climate change, and human rights; but similarities on Pakistan and China.
As things stand, 2020 is the year of the Biden dream, both for himself (he has aspired to the presidency for more than 30 years), and for the India-US relationship. Let us see what awaits at the other end of the dream.
The author is former Ambassador to the US and involved in dealing with Afghanistan and Pakistan in the post-9/11 period. Views are personal.