What a Biden White House might mean for India: Statesman contributors

The authors say one can expect incoming US President Biden to prioritize the continuity of current relationship between US and India while expressing concerns about India's internal politics informally.

A painter gives the final touches to a painting depicting newly elected US President Joe Biden, in Mumbai on Nov 8, 2020.
A painter gives the final touches to a painting depicting newly elected US President Joe Biden, in Mumbai on Nov 8, 2020.PHOTO: AFP

NEW DELHI (THE STATESMAN/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - Us President-elect Joe Biden will be sworn in as the 46th president of the United States of America in a fortnight, and scholars and practitioners seem to be divided on how his presidency would impact India and its foreign policy conduct. India-US relations have been accelerating since the late 1990s, primary reasons being similar democratic values and concerns about China and terrorism. This relationship expanded during the tenures of US Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump, when India and the US deepened their Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD) partnerships, 2+2 dialogues and also signed various agreements, serving security interests of both the countries.

However, sceptics have doubted the same momentum of positive India-US ties under Biden, citing ideological differences. While the Trump government had no strong opinion on India's internal politics, it is highly unlikely if Democrats will follow suit; and critiques have stressed on how key Democrats such as Biden, Bernie Sanders, and Robert Menendez have already commented on India's internal politics.

But scholars such as C. Rajamohan and Kanti Bajpai have asserted that the claims of the sceptics are a bit exaggerated. It is in the US's interests to limit China's growing influence in the international system, especially in the Indo-Pacific region and India will be a key partner to this grand strategy. Thus, the US will support India militarily and economically and would be hesitant to comment on India's internal affairs and dispositions. It is also believed that Biden's familiarity with India and his positive role in the civil nuclear deal will accelerate these positive ties.

Even so national interests reign supreme; it is highly unlikely that any leader would discount his domestic constituents and support to attain the same. Biden is no exemption to it. Although it is yet to be seen how and what role the US Congress and Democrats play in Biden's foreign policy, it can be assumed that their ideas will act as a pressure group and regulate Biden's policy. Even though Biden will prioritise continuity of current relationship with India, the Democrats will observe and assess India's internal politics. Thus, one can expect Biden to express his concerns to India's internal dispositions, mostly unofficially and personally, at least to fend-off his domestic pressures.

Despite this continuity, there will be no greater change in India's current multilateral approach. Since the US will need India to actively limit and cheque China, it will assist India with its material and status gains.

In its position as a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) from 2021, India intends to push for much-needed reforms in the United Nations. It is expected that the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council - the US, Russia, UK and France (but not China) will support India's demand for reforms. But, India with its contribution of US$23 million (S$30.48 million) for the UN budget is not even in the top ten contributors, when other regional powers such as Japan, Germany and Brazil have cemented their positions as top contributors with similar demands for reforms. So it is unlikely that India would attain a significant change in its multilateral status.

Also, New Delhi's position of strongly linking nationalism and foreign policy with China, its current stand-off and economic nationalism, accompanied by the US's need for an active India, pitches India strongly against China. This means India will deepen its relationship with the West and the QUAD, much to the annoyance of China. This will further complicate its UNSC membership, as China will attempt to limit India's material and status power. A similar case can be seen with the Nuclear Supplier Group (NSG), where the West will favour India, and China will veto any such resolutions.

Biden also intends to limit China by focusing on his East Asian and European allies. India will be his best bet to limit China in South Asia and the Indian Ocean. However, China's growing influence and investments continue to threaten India's established leadership in the region. India's ties with Nepal are still recovering from the damages of the Lipulekh road controversy and ongoing Chinese influence; Bangladesh and Maldives are attempting to maintain a balance between India and China, albeit being victims of China's debt diplomacy, and Sri Lanka continues to be influenced by China. This keeps both India and the US on their toes.

Consequently, India's role as a net security provider of the region has been put to scrutiny by the US starting from late 2016 and the US has been increasing its bilateral engagement with the region at the cost of India's influence. The Trump administration's high official level meets with Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Maldives underscores this fact. This gradual increase in the US's direct engagement with the region will tend to continue under Biden as India's material and institutional limitations toil to limit China.

Another concern is Pakistan. While reports of Pakistan's state-sponsored terrorism will be criticised by the Democrats in the US, Washington may tone down its rhetoric for bilateral and multilateral engagement as Biden intends to continue to withdraw US troops from Afghanistan and use Pakistan to monitor Afghanistan's peace process. Thus, it is likely the US will suggest to India and Pakistan to restart their negotiations, and the US might also raise unofficial concerns on Kashmir, much to India's annoyance.

Much is at stake with the new presidency, which has less to do with the change in government and more to do with the rapidly changing international system. Geopolitics of the Indo-Pacific are rapidly evolving, and India should step up its much-needed reforms to tighten its grip over its spheres of influence and limit China. India should focus on diplomatic capacity-building and engagement in the Indo-Pacific region and also accelerate economic growth and its material capabilities. It should also pursue its regional/neighbourhood policy (including its Act East policy) to evolve as a regional leader. Only then can it create leverage for membership within the UNSC and also re-establish its influence by fending off China and US's blossoming influence in the region.

The writers are, respectively, an international relations graduate from the London School of Economics who comments on foreign policy matters and an Associate Professor, School of Social Sciences, Ramaiah University of Applied Sciences, Bengaluru, India. The Statesman is a member of The Straits Times media partner Asia News Network, an alliance of 23 news media entities.