India can deal productively with Trump (and Biden)
In the run-up to the 2020 US presidential election, it is time to examine the impact of Trump’s presidency on various countries across the globe. How do different countries look back upon four years of President Trump? In this seventh episode of the Clingendael Spectator series “Four Years Trump: Taking Stock and Looking Forward”, C. Raja Mohan explains why India will not be disappointed if Trump is re-elected as president of the US.
Few major countries have seen their bilateral relationship with the United States advance significantly during the four years of Donald Trump’s presidency. Unlike many of America’s allies, partners and friends, Delhi will not be disappointed if Trump is re-elected as president of the US. At the same time, the political elite of Delhi is unlikely to be dissatisfied by the election of former Vice President Joseph Biden either, who is a familiar political figure for the Indian establishment.
Delhi is confident that it can handle the potential change of political orientation in Washington
Meanwhile, at the popular level in India, there is extraordinary enthusiasm for the Biden-Harris ticket. The vice presidential nominee of the Democratic Party, Kamala Harris, is of Indian origin. The Indian diaspora has traditionally voted Democrat, but as its numbers grow and become more differentiated, the Republicans too are reaching out.
One reason for the active bipartisan courting of a relatively small community of Indian-American voters (estimated at 1.8 million), is that its concentration in some swing states like Florida, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin could tilt the outcome in a race that is beginning to tighten.1
As India’s stakes in the relationship have expanded, so has the political and economic interest in the outcome of the November elections. Delhi is acutely aware of the deep political polarisation in the US and is conscious of the fact that changes in US policy under a new administration will have a big impact on India’s security and prosperity. Nevertheless, Delhi is confident that it can handle the potential change of political orientation in Washington after Trump.
China and other superpowers
US policy dynamics towards China are a major area of concern. Both American and Indian relations with China have been on a downward trajectory through the Trump years, which, unsurprisingly, has emerged as an important factor in shaping the strategic partnership between Delhi and Washington.
Any changes in US policy vis-à-vis China – even a perception of it – could have a significant bearing on Delhi’s own fraught ties with Beijing. Currently, India is caught up in a military confrontation with China in the high Himalayas.2
Democrats say they do not want a “new Cold War” with China
The prospect for China’s military withdrawal from the territories it has captured from India this spring would significantly reduce if Beijing believes the Biden administration will be less hostile to China. The Trump administration has indeed expressed strong support for India in the current crisis and characterised Chinese actions in the eastern Ladakh region as unacceptable aggression.
The Democratic Party’s election platform carefully navigates the minefield created by Trump’s full-blown attacks on China. Democrats say they do not want a “new Cold War” with China but promise to be tough with Beijing on trade and human rights issues.
At the same time, they underline the importance of sustaining a productive engagement with China on global issues, such as climate change.3 China, then, may be right to calculate that a victory of Biden might create political space to address the current escalation of bilateral tensions with the US and explore accommodation on the full range of contentious issues. Delhi worries that some of that accommodation might be at the expense of Beijing’s Asian neighbours.
How the next administration relates to other powers, especially Russia, is also of concern to India. Delhi’s enduring partnership with Moscow is already in the cross-hairs of the US policy. The Trump administration, for example, has held out the threat of imposing sanctions on India if it continues with the planned purchase of S-400 missiles from Russia.
While India has managed to navigate this tension without too much cost, that calculus could alter significantly under a Biden administration that comes in with much greater animus towards Putin’s Russia.
The Pakistan Issue
Within India’s immediate neighbourhood, the salience of Pakistan has steadily reduced in the India-US relations since the Bill Clinton years (1993-2001). President George W. Bush discarded the approach of treating India and Pakistan as an inseparable pair in America’s engagement with South Asia during the second half of the 20th century.
The “de-hyphenation”, dealing with two countries in an independent manner, allowed Washington to view Delhi from the lens of great power politics, rather than regional security management focused on nuclear proliferation and the Kashmir question.
From India’s perspective, Trump has gone a lot further than his predecessors in mounting pressure on Pakistan to stop supporting terrorism in the region. This has been especially welcome in Delhi and has provided the basis for a much deeper trust vis-à-vis the US.
The Biden administration, with its stronger focus on human rights, is likely to put the actions of Narendra Modi’s government in Kashmir and other domestic policies to more critical scrutiny
Delhi was even more pleased with Washington’s support in the military confrontation with Pakistan in February 2019, that saw the first clash involving fighter aircraft since the Indo-Pakistani War of 1971. The Trump administration has also joined India’s other partners, especially France, to block the Chinese effort to initiate a discussion at the United Nations Security Council on the constitutional changes that India made in the Kashmir province in August 2019.
Might a Biden administration change this overt shift towards India back into some kind of even-handed policy between Delhi and Islamabad? It is quite reasonable to conclude that the Biden administration will not abandon the new approach towards India that has evolved over the last two decades.
But unlike the Trump administration, the Biden administration, with its stronger focus on human rights, is likely to put the actions of Narendra Modi’s government in Kashmir and other domestic policies to more critical scrutiny.
For all the American rhetoric on Kashmir, it is the Afghan dynamic that has profoundly shaped the evolution of South Asia’s international relations for more than four decades. Having benefited from the extended US military presence in Afghanistan since 2001, Delhi is deeply concerned about the consequences of the continuing reduction in American military presence in Afghanistan and Washington’s eagerness to cut a deal with the Taliban at any cost.
India’s concerns primarily relate to potential instability that is likely to ensue in Afghanistan as a result of the power vacuum created by the withdrawal of the US, which has dominated the military and political landscape of Afghanistan for two decades.
The likelihood of Pakistan and China expanding their influence in this nation that bridges South and Central Asia causes much anxiety in India. But Delhi is aware of the rapid diminution of American public support for endless foreign wars and does not expect significant policy changes under the presidency of Biden.
The complicated relationship with the Middle East
Beyond the Indian subcontinent, the Trump term has shown some reduction of differences between the US and India in the Middle East and growing convergence of interest in the newly minted geography of the Indo-Pacific.
Delhi is conscious of the fact that it is the US corporations that drive the policy on foreign tech workers
The idea of seeing the Indian and Pacific oceans as a single strategic space was first articulated by Japan during the last decade. The Indo-Pacific has been institutionalised by the Trump administration, which places special emphasis on expanding strategic cooperation to stabilise the new geography.
India’s deepening ties with Israel and Sunni Arab states like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have been welcome in Trump’s Washington. However, due to the Trump administration’s maximum pressure campaign against Teheran, the differences between both countries regarding Iran have become sharper.
As India sees Iran as a critical actor for its long-term strategy in Afghanistan, a Democratic victory could reduce some of the Iran-related differences. It is not clear if the Biden administration will persist with the full-blown commitment to the Indo-Pacific strategy unveiled in the Trump years. Although the US “pivot to Asia” began under former President Barack Obama, Biden’s Indo-Pacific strategy will be deeply tied to its China policy.
Foreign policy approaches
Beyond the regional security politics, India – like all major partners of the US – has had to come to terms with the fact that Trump abandoned America’s traditional engagement with the world. He has damaged America’s long-standing alliances, challenged the conventional wisdom on the virtues of economic globalisation, and is undermining most multilateral institutions, from the World Trade Organization to the World Health Organization.
India’s response has been measured. Since India is not a treaty partner of the US, Delhi has had no reason to be anxious about Trump’s new strategy in terms of alliances. As a nation seeking a larger role in the world, India is potentially open to discussion on a range of burden-sharing possibilities with the US in the Indo-Pacific.4
Trump’s challenge to globalisation has generated much concern in Delhi
For Delhi, the issue may no longer be about the ideology of non-alignment but about the terms of engagement with the US. Meanwhile, the US is looking to draw India into new military arrangements, like the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue in the Indo-Pacific.5 The so-called “Quad”, which involves the US, India, Australia and Japan, has certainly increased Delhi’s value and leverage in Trump’s Washington.
Trump’s challenge to globalisation has generated much concern in Delhi, that has a policy based on immigration and trade. India has been a major beneficiary of America’s open borders over the last half a century and more. Trump’s emphasis on reducing immigration and limiting the entry of foreign skilled workers has generated much concern in India.
Biden, in contrast, has promised to lift many of the restrictions imposed by Trump.6 For the Modi government, facilitating the free movement of Indians abroad has been a major policy priority. While it raised concerns with the Trump administration, Delhi is conscious of the fact that it is the US corporations that drive the policy on foreign tech workers and that Trump’s emphasis on skilled immigration will continue to favour the Indians
While India is a topic of importance on the immigration theme of the political agenda in these elections, Delhi’s test on trade issues remains a more demanding one and is unlikely to change much under Biden.7 Throughout 2017-2020, Trump saw the trade deficit with India as a major challenge and devoted much political energy on compelling India for a trade deal.
Delhi, on its part, has increased imports from the US but has confirmed its reputation as a difficult trade negotiator. As a result, a much anticipated but limited mini trade deal was elusive at the end of the summer. If Delhi is conscious of the shifting domestic politics of trade in the US, it is yet to demonstrate flexibility in its own trade policies.
In addition to trade policy, Modi’s India is taking a more pro-active approach to multilateralism that synchronises with the Democrats on issues like climate change and global health. The good news for India is that both Trump and Biden see India as a potential partner in rearranging the global institutions and in developing new mechanisms like a reformation from G7 to G10/11 (Trump), or a global coalition of democracies (Biden).8
Unlike China, Russia or Europe, Delhi thus has no incentive to pick sides between Trump and Biden
Delhi is also part of the US-led conversations on building resilient supply chains in the Indo-Pacific as part of reducing the massive economic exposure to China. At the moment, these ideas remain poorly formed. They do, however, give Delhi ample possibilities for intensifying its engagement on multilateralism with whoever wins the next election.
It is, therefore, no surprise that India is not too worried about the outcome of the presidential elections. Delhi’s political equanimity in the US elections arises from the fact that India’s partnership with the US over the last two decades has constantly improved across the different administrations: Clinton, Bush, Obama and Trump.
The Indian foreign policy establishment, including the top diplomat Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, who was appointed minister of Foreign Affairs in 2019, has dealt with the US foreign policy elite across the political division in Washington and is confident of sustaining that engagement under the new administration.
Unlike China, Russia or Europe, Delhi thus has no incentive to pick sides between Trump and Biden. It can deal productively with both. However, Delhi is conscious of the current unprecedented division in US domestic politics and the breakdown of the internal consensus on foreign and economic policies. Therefore, India is prepared for some unpredictability in the US external policies in the coming years.
All authors of this Clingendael Spectator series will grade the impact of the Trump administration on the relation with their country in the scorecard below.
- 1 Yashwant Raj, ‘2020 is special for Indian-American Community in US politics’, Hindustan Times, 28 August, 2020.
- 2For a background see: Bill Spindle and Niharika Mandhana, ‘India China Border Conflict: What We Know’, Wall Street Journal, 31 August 2020.
- 3See: The 2020 Democratic Party Platform.
- 4For a discussion see ‘Trump and Modi: Prospects for US-India Burden Sharing’, Singapore: Institute of South Asian Studies and Asia Foundation, 2019.
- 5US State Department, ‘Deputy Secretary Beigun remarks at the US-India Strategic Partnership Forum’, Washington, 31 August 2020.
- 6Press Trust of India, ‘Biden promises H-1 B reform, to eliminate country quota for Green Cards’, Business Standard, 16 August 2020.
- 7For a backgrounder, see Alyssa Ayres, ‘A Field Guide to US-India Trade Tensions’, Council on Foreign Relations, 13 February 2020.
- 8For a discussion, see C. Raja Mohan