President Joe Biden faces a slew of important foreign policy challenges. But with India, he has a historic opportunity to forge a strategic alliance to help build a stable balance of power in Asia and the wider Indo-Pacific region.
India has been a bright spot in U.S. foreign policy over the past two decades. Continuing a process set in motion by President Bill Clinton during the 1990s and accelerated by every succeeding administration, U.S.-India relations thrived during Donald Trump’s presidency. Not surprisingly, there is strong bipartisan support in both Washington and New Delhi for a closer partnership under Biden.
The Trump administration’s now-declassified “U.S. Strategic Framework for the Indo-Pacific” gives India pride of place in American strategy. “A strong India, in cooperation with like-minded countries, would act as a counterbalance to China,” it states. The framework underlines the U.S. objective to “accelerate India’s rise and capacity to serve as a net provider of security” in the Indo-Pacific and as America’s major defense partner.
Trump’s standalone trip to India last year underscored how the expanding strategic partnership has become an important diplomatic asset for both countries. The visit is remembered by many Indians for Trump’s famous words at a huge rally in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s home city of Ahmedabad: “America loves India, America respects India, and America will always be faithful and loyal friends to the Indian people.”
Today, the United States is close to accomplishing what it has long struggled to achieve: co-opting India in a “soft alliance” built not on formal security obligations but on common interests. U.S. officials recognize that such an arrangement will bear little resemblance to the patron-client framework that was established in Asia during the Cold War, with Washington as the “hub” and treaty allies like Japan, South Korea and Australia as the “spokes.” No such arrangement would work with India today, for the simple reason that a country so large, especially one that values its strategic autonomy, cannot become another Japan or South Korea to the U.S. As then-Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun stressed during a visit to New Delhi in October, the U.S. is seeking “not an alliance on the postwar model but a fundamental alignment along shared security and geopolitical goals, shared interests, and shared values.”
India recently signed the last of four “foundational” agreements that the U.S. maintains with all of its close defense partners. India, shedding its earlier hesitation, has also elevated its involvement in the Quad, a coalition of democracies with Australia, Japan and the U.S. that is at the center of America’s “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” strategy. The Quad, which China views as an emerging Asian version of NATO, held its first joint military exercise in November, when Australia joined the other Quad members for India’s annual Malabar naval war games.
China’s aggressive expansionism has helped drive India’s shift toward closer strategic collaboration with the U.S. A major turning point was China’s decision last spring to stealthily occupy mountaintops and other strategic vantage points in the borderlands of the northernmost Indian region of Ladakh. That move triggered the deadliest clash along the two countries’ disputed border in decades, and 100,000 war-ready Indian and Chinese troops are still locked in a military standoff.
The depth of strategic collaboration between the world’s most powerful and most populous democracies will ultimately be shaped by Biden’s China policy.
India’s alarm over Chinese aggression is widely shared in Washington, now more than ever, as the Trump administration began explicitly labeling China as a “revisionist power,” “strategic competitor” and principal adversary. Before this paradigm shift, successive U.S. presidents since the 1970s aided the rise of their country’s most formidable competitor, believing—falsely, it turned out—that an increasingly prosperous China would become a “responsible stakeholder.” That blunder will continue to haunt not only the U.S. but also its allies and partners.
This explains why Trump was more popular in a number of Asian countries than he was at home or in Western Europe. As Ian Buruma recently observed, many Asians “saw Trump as a coarse but powerful leader of the free world against [Chinese] communist tyranny.” Even within China, Trump was admired by those concerned about leader Xi Jinping’s increasingly arbitrary and despotic rule.
Against this background, U.S.-India ties will remain close. However, the depth of strategic collaboration between the world’s most powerful and most populous democracies will ultimately be shaped by Biden’s China policy. Biden has yet to clearly enunciate his approach toward Beijing or his overall Asia policy. If anything, Biden has fueled uncertainty over whether his administration will continue with Trump’s strategy, including by refraining from using the term, “Free and Open Indo-Pacific,” coining a new phrase instead: a “Secure and Prosperous Indo-Pacific.” He has made no mention thus far of the Quad, which holds the promise of becoming a formal security arrangement. Biden, however, has done well to name the veteran Asia hand Kurt Campbell to the newly created position of Indo-Pacific coordinator on the National Security Council.
Will Biden spurn the Trump administration’s approach and seek to reset U.S. policy toward China and the Indo-Pacific? A softer U.S. approach toward Beijing is unlikely to help build the long-sought soft alliance with India. Given the bipartisan U.S. consensus and some of his own national security appointments, it is doubtful that Biden could return to the more-indulgent approach to China of the Obama administration, when Beijing engaged in mostly cost-free expansionism, including redrawing the South China Sea’s geopolitical map.
To be sure, there are also other issues, including Pakistan and human rights, that could impede progress toward India’s full involvement in the U.S.-led security architecture. A decision to restore U.S. security aid to Pakistan, for example, would set off alarm bells in New Delhi, as it would relieve pressure on Pakistan to curb its well-documented support for terrorist groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba and the Haqqani Network, and unwittingly contribute to the growing China-Pakistan axis against India.
India’s domestic politics mirrors that of the U.S. in terms of hardened polarization, with a widening divide between liberals and conservatives. Trump refrained from commenting on contentious developments in India so as not to be seen as wading into the country’s domestic politics. But Biden has pledged a renewed U.S. focus on promotion of liberal values and human rights. In his presidential campaign, Biden criticized the Modi government’s suppression of dissent in the Muslim-majority territory of Jammu and Kashmir, as well as a new Indian law to grant citizenship to non-Muslim refugees that fled religious persecution in the three neighboring Muslim-majority countries of Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh. Critics have branded that law anti-Muslim. If the Biden administration were to be openly critical of such issues, it might embolden Modi’s critics while turning Indian public opinion against a closer partnership with Washington.
However, Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, whose mother was Indian, are likely to pursue a pragmatic approach that prioritizes deeper engagement with India. This will include clinching a much-sought-after trade deal with India, whose huge market is an increasingly powerful magnet for U.S. businesses; forging a partnership with New Delhi on climate change; and expanding defense ties. Such a balanced approach is appropriate, for no relationship between any two democracies is as important in today’s changing world than the one between the U.S. and India.
Brahma Chellaney is a geo-strategist and the author of nine books, including, most recently, “Water, Peace, and War” (Rowman & Littlefield).