Much fanfare has characterized India-U.S. ties in recent years. The personal bonhomie between leaders Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Donald Trump was on full display during the grand Howdy Modi! and Namaste Trump spectacles, where each rolled out the red carpet for the other.
Yet, flashy events have not translated into sustained strategic progress. And even though, Indo-U.S. ties were spared the damage other American allies have borne over the last four years, Trump has proven to be an unreliable, moody and overly transactional ally for India, often making it difficult for the two "natural partners" to work together.
In 2019, Trump offered to mediate between India and Pakistan on Kashmir, riling an India that consistently sought bilateral resolution of the dispute. And in February this year, he triggered discomfort when he boasted of the U.S.’s "very good" relations with Pakistan speaking in front of an Indian audience of millions.
Besides, trade tensions including Trump’s fixation on deficits, references to India as a "tariff king," and termination of India’s Generalized System of Preferences status, have dampened ties. Trump also threatened to sanction India over defense transactions with New Delhi’s historic ally Russia, particularly the purchase of S-400 missiles.
His immigration policies have disproportionately hurt Indians, who are the largest beneficiaries of the highly skilled category of H1B visas. And neither has he, unlike his predecessor Obama to whom Biden served as Vice President, pushed for India’s permanent seat at the UN Security Council.
In the midst of a pandemic, Trump’s mood swings were on full display, when he allegedly threatened India with retaliation if India did not share its stock of hydroxychloroquine - Trump’s much-touted treatment of COVID-19 - with America. Most recently, this month, he bracketed India with authoritarian Russia and China, as countries that do not accurately disclose coronavirus-related deaths.
Worse, Trump has shown little regard towards India’s neighborhood. The administration has consistently coerced India to downgrade its considerable economic ties with Iran.
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Trump threatened New Delhi into stopping oil imports from Iran, at the time one of India’s largest oil suppliers. The White House hindered progress on the strategically important Chabahar project by tightening sanctions on Iran, forcing a painful regression in India’s longstanding ties with Tehran.
All this has meant Trump has ceded space for India’s rivals, Pakistan and China, to tighten ties with Iran. To top it off, the situation in Afghanistan remains unsettled as ever.
Of course, there have been some positive aspects during his tenure, such as the easing of the arms export regime to India, and blocking Chinese efforts to discuss India’s revocation of Article 370 in Kashmir at the UN.
Most importantly for the Modi government, Trump refrained from interfering in India’s controversial domestic political developments, including the crackdown in Kashmir after the abrogation of the Muslim-majority state's special status as codified in the Indian constitution's Article 370 as well as the Citizenship Amendment Act - both of which garnered significant international attention and criticism.
But while New Delhi has gotten more comfortable with a non-interfering American president in the White House, ties have mostly been reduced to showbiz, defense sales and trade retaliation, instead of the full spectrum of issues that the two strategic partners must cooperate on.
The bigger story of the Trump presidency, and on that threatens India, is his abdication of America’s global leadership role and the significant weakening of the rules-based multilateral order, not least, by exiting the World Health Organisation, the Paris Agreement, and the UN Human Rights Council.
His watering down of commitments to treaty partners including Japan, South Korea, Philippines have emboldened Chinese aggression in Asia, leaving India, who is facing a tense military spat with China in the Himalayas, at the receiving end.
Even on China, his much-touted muscular stance involving trade tariffs and Huawei sanctions wavered, from initially praising Xi’s handling of the pandemic to faltering at the prospect of trade benefits.
After Trump’s shortsighted, erratic and zero-sum approach, a Biden presidency could bring much needed respite: greater predictability, stability and reliability.
For India, Biden is the devil it knows. As Senator and then Vice-President to Obama, he invested much effort in a U.S.-India partnership, going so far as stating in 2006, "My dream is that in 2020, the two closest nations in the world will be India and the U.S." Crucially, from India’s nuclear tests to the Indo-U.S. civil nuclear deal, he was instrumental in India’s accommodation into the nuclear fold.
Since then, global shifts and geopolitics, particularly the common China challenge, have resulted in greater Indo-American strategic alignment.
In the run up to the elections, Biden pledged "no tolerance" for cross border terrorism in South Asia, vowed to revoke suspension of H1B visas, and promised to work with India towards a rules-based Indo-Pacific where "no country, including China is able to threaten its neighbors with impunity."
Trade issues will likely persist owing to strong protectionism tendencies in both nations, but Biden’s long-term vision will offer more substance to work with.
Biden is likely to adopt a more rational approach and rejoin the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action on Tehran’s nuclear capabilities, albeit conditionally, which would give India some space to rebuild ties with Iran and work on its joint infrastructure projects in which so many resources have already been invested.
Despite Asian allies worrying about the possibility of Biden being softer on China based on their experience of the Obama era, the world has changed significantly since then, as evident in Biden’s reference to Chinese Premier Xi as a "thug" in a debate. Besides, the Trump administration’s inconsistent approach has not worked to deter Chinese aggression towards its neighbors.
Crucially, Biden will counter the China challenge through cooperation with America’s long term alliances and partners, while cooperating with China on converging challenges such as climate change.
This competitive-cooperative approach towards China may have its benefits - the world has seen how the WHO became a casualty of great power competition during a pandemic. COVID-19 exposed the vulnerabilities of the multilateral order and the consequences of an absence of global cooperation, while laying bare the dire necessity of both.
Projecting himself as "rescuing American foreign policy," Biden stated he would reverse many of Trump’s decisions, such as WHO withdrawal, and work towards strengthening the multilateral system. An America with Biden at the helm would put key global challenges such as climate change, referred to as a "hoax" by Trump, back on the cooperative agenda, benefiting both India and the U.S.
There will be uncertainties - a Biden administration may be more averse to India’s dealings with Russia.
Significantly, turmoil surrounding the issue of Kashmir and human rights in India is expected, given the Democratic Party’s propensity towards defending values in U.S. foreign policy. Biden and Harris have already criticized Modi's citizenship legislation and India’s actions in Kashmir, and the progressive wing of the party will push them to adhere to the party’s core commitments on human rights. Much will depend on how India reacts to criticisms and its willingness to constructively engage on issues.
At the same time, the "shared values" foundation that underpins the relationship puts India in a special place. This is better than an aspirationally autocratic Trump who, while demonstrating little interest in domestic agendas, also does not distinguish between authoritarianism and democracy.
India enjoys bipartisan support in the U.S. and, as leading analyst C. Raja Mohan explains, and can deal productively with both Trump and Biden. But a solid alliance is built from steady progress, beyond personalities, through a concrete pursuit of common interests, visions, and commitments, based on a common worldview.
Against the backdrop of Chinese expansionism and assertion, India can do without the bombast of the Trump era. What it does need is an American president who actually understands the give-and-take of international relations and can operate conscious of the bigger and more long-term strategic picture. Biden’s historical record suggests that he does., and Trump’s disruptive leadership has already proven he does not.
A Biden win would mean the Modi government backpedalling on its public displays of Trump adulation – but a Biden presidency should be seen by India as a welcome victory of substance over style, and more capable of driving the Indo-U.S. partnership to greater, and sturdier, heights.
Shairee Malhotra is an international relations expert who has worked for the European External Action Service and think tanks in India and Europe. She is currently the 2020 South Asia Fellow at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy. Twitter: @MalhotraShairee