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Relations with India: What hope from Biden administration amidst 'major' challenges

By Dr Simi Mehta

Indo-US relations have played a major role in international politics for both the countries and even to the world. Historically, since the Nehru-Truman talk in 1949, there has been no looking back for both countries. Despite a few bumps on the road, both countries share common interests in fighting terrorism, enhancing human rights, increased trade networks among many others.
In 2020, the US politics witnessed a very different dynamic. First, the country successfully conducted an election during a pandemic and second heralded the possibility of electing a female vice-president for the very first time in the history of American politics and executive leadership.
To study how the new US administration under President-elect Joe Biden and discuss the impact of it on the Indo-US relations a panel discussion was conducted by the Center for International Relations and Strategic Studies (CIRSS), Impact and Policy Research Institute (IMPRI), India and the Rising Powers Initiative, Sigur Center for Asian Studies at the George Washington University, Washington DC, USA.
Prof Deepa M Ollapally, Research Professor of International Affairs and the Associate Director of the Sigur Center for Asian Studies, spoke about the strategic relations between India and US and the possible changes and modifications that it can witness under President-elect Biden’s administration. She stressed upon the important point out here that regardless of the leadership in America, India would continue to be a significant strategic partner for the country.
Primarily because it shares common interests in the Chinese aggression on the Indian frontiers and Indo-Pacific. Biden administration would seek to have cordial relations with China as opposed to Trump, because none of the parties would want any form of confrontation. At present, it would be interesting to witness how both Prime Minister Modi and President–elect Biden form a network to combat the pandemic and how the politics over the vaccine would unfold.
The idea behind the strategic Indo-US partnership was pushed by the Obama-Biden administration very proactively. It was primarily to secure democracy and rule of law in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), as was firmed up in the Pacific region. In the Biden-Modi administration, they would have rather little worries carrying forward the already existing regulations and understanding.
Biden also inherits a large amount of agreements like the foundational defence arrangements like Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA), that would be an added advantage in pushing for continued positivity in the bilateral relations between India and US.
Prof Ollapally pointed out the opportunities and challenges for the Biden administration which may or may not be beneficial to India. For example, if Biden re-enters the Iran nuclear deal it could be a major opportunity for him to reset the US understanding with other countries: China, France, Russia, United Kingdom, and Germany who are part of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.
It will be a matter of time to determine how these opportunities have had an impact on India. Major challenges that remain matters of concern include: domestic economic recovery and the post-pandemic nation building, Trump-era immigration policies etc.
She concluded her remarks by saying that it would also be interesting to see whether US and China would be signatories to the the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), despite being two large countries of the world.
According to Richard Rossow, Senior Adviser and Wadhwani Chair in US-India Policy Studies at Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), in the pre-Covid period, India and US had a very successful and cordial relationship as compared to any other country when it came to trade. The figures showed a very high profit for both countries regardless of the claims made by both New Delhi and Washington.
Therefore, the numbers project a good and satisfactory approach towards the economic ties between the two countries. This is aided by the fact that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been a pro-investment leader all throughout his term. He has significantly cut down on FDIs and has constantly encouraged foreign companies to invest in India and look for opportunities here. This definitely has had an impact on the US-India relations.
In the prevailing Covid-era there has been a slight change in the dynamics of trade between the two countries. India’s rank has fallen from being the 9th largest trading partner of the US to rank 12. He pointed out that there was still time in the future to decide whether or not India could potentially be a top trading country, however, at present that dream is farfetched. It will only depend on how the foreign companies/investors do their business in India.
China is looking forward to expanding its global domination. This definitely poses a great threat to India in Asia and to the USA in the world. It is here that the countries need to adopt the steps that China has been undertaking to achieve its goal. The focus should not be on how much a country is importing or exporting, rather what one needs to constantly monitor is its manufacturing patterns and its modern techniques and resources.
These are some of the Chinese guidelines for 2025; therefore, in order to prevent Chinese domination, India and the USA need to adopt such policies. Data flow remains another key aspect of concern with China. But it has to be understood that in order to prevent domination, data flow needs to be open and more transparent between India and the USA. It is undoubtedly the most important aspect, and at the core of Indo-US relations.
Rossow concluded by saying that in the first half of the Biden administration there is an urgent need for India to roll back the stringent barriers, come closer in the trading sector and mend the existing gaps between India and the USA.
“India matters” has been a very prevalent phrase for the longest time. The country is a rising power in Asia. With its advancement in technology, knowledge and defence techniques, India is undoubtedly a very prominent and important voice in world politics and global affairs. Therefore, Prof KP Vijayalakshmi, Professor of US Studies at the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University pointed out that regardless of the President in power in the US, India will remain an important strategic power. There have definitely been slight disagreements, however, in the last four leaderships, India has remained a rather important ally.
There are several factors that bring the US and India together. But according to Prof. Vijayalakshmi the most significant reason is the defence cooperation. Both India and US believe that there is an immediate need to reestablish and strengthen their defence ties on a much larger level. 
In the very recent Doklam standoff concerning India and China, it is believed that the US had a major role to play in bringing peace to the situation only because of the various defence agreements (like the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) and Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) and BECA between US and India. 
Focus should not be on how much one is importing or exporting, rather on manufacturing patterns and its modern techniques and resources
It is agreements like these that provide India with real actionable intelligence. Thus, in order to enable any form of agreement there must be a dialogue between the two concerned parties that would help in the optimum utilization of the agreement in future. 
The continued talks and relations between the two countries is the sole reason that the Doklam issue was prevented from turning into a much more violent confrontation with China. Therefore, it is by no doubt that we can establish the fact that India is not just important to the US for resources but the US is important for India when it comes to defence cooperation and economic prosperity.
The US administration under President–elect Joe Biden strongly believes that India is a key figure in the Indo-Pacific belt and without India being a part of it, there is not much other countries could do in the region. Thus, a statement like this from the US government gives India a stronger role over the region.
India’s interests with Afghanistan will also prove to be a point of discussion between India and the US. Despite several contentions by the people on believing Taliban, the Indian convoy did end up meeting them at the Doha convention. This meeting with India and Afghanistan is important to the US primarily because the Biden administration believes in the systematic withdrawal of troops from the place but also, more importantly, a systematic end to the war as the ultimate goal.
Therefore, this matter could be one of the most important topics that India, the Afghan government and the US administration could collectively deliberate, talk and debate about and possibly reach to a peaceful consensus.
During the question and answer session, Prof Ollapally spoke about how China should not be seen as a ‘threat’ to the US and India relationship despite the open dislike by US President Trump. USA’s interests in India would only be successful if India’s economics is successful and flourishing.
At present, China has a lot of border issues, not just India but Japan, the South China Sea issue etc, therefore, she pointed that due to these growing concerns, this would be the ideal situation for both India and the US to come together as one strong bloc.

Adding on to this, Prof Vijayalakshmi iterated the fact that rather than just India and the US trying to be the pioneers against Chinese aggression, it would be ideal if organizations like the ASEAN is encouraged to participate in the dialogue processes. The main reason for including ASEAN would be to welcome and make them aware about how difficult it is to handle a country like China which constantly has border issues and yet has a strong trade relation.
In her closing remarks, Prof. Ollapally says that the new Biden administration has a lot of existing problems to deal with as soon it resumes power. The pandemic, the vaccine rollouts and the upliftment of the economy from the losses it incurred during and before the pandemic. Therefore, in the first two years of the administration, India should be assured that there will not be any stringent agreements or deals. However, after two years, the India government can expect a few changes and formulations.
As a disadvantage to the Indian government, it could be a trouble because Biden has always been a strong supporter of “democracy at home and abroad”. Therefore, India should gear itself to answer questions related to Kashmir, CAA and NRC.
Prof Vijayalakshmi pointed out that both the governments have a lot of common grounds that they could possibly talk and discuss about. In the agricultural sector, India could draw lessons from US domestic agricultural policies and focus on those areas that converge the interests of government and the farmers.
Overall the webinar brought to light the need to consistently engage in the issues of contention while keeping the common interests, rule of law, democracy and values of pluralism at the heart of bilateral ties between India and America. India should make all efforts to continue to intensify its warm relations with the Biden administration as it did during the Trump administration in the last four years. 
***
Acknowledgement: Annmary Thomas, research intern, IMPRI

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