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Modi-Biden bonhomie: Relationship with US likely to be more unilateral, less multilateral

By Simi Mehta* 

Indian foreign policy witnessed sharp changes in the last few decades, with increasing proximity to the US being the most notable of them. That trend of a warming relationship between the two countries has since remained unfettered. On this line of thought, the Centre for International Relations and Strategic Studies (CIRSS), Impact and Policy Research Institute (IMPRI), New Delhi, organized a #WebPolicyTalk series on India-US Strategic Partnership under Modi and Biden.
The bonhomie and the camaraderie that was exhibited by the United States and India spoke volumes of India’s economic growth and other strategic aspects, it was pointed out. Prime Minister Narendra Modi positioned his priorities to all aspects of engagements with the US that can have national implications.
The speaker of the event, Prof Deepa Ollapally, Research Professor of International Affairs, and Associate Director, Sigur Center for Asian Studies, Elliott School of International Affairs, George Washington University, Washington, DC, USA, expressed optimism about a robust future of partnership under the leadership of Modi and President Joe Biden. The relationship between India and the US is set to take an upward positive trajectory, where there is no turning back.
The bonhomie witnessed in the recent meeting of the two heads of the states portrayed a very pragmatic outlook towards the pursuance of their foreign policy. She said that there are going to be a lot of continuities in the US’s relationship with India that were set afoot since the presidency of Donald Trump. This signifies that the relationship is scheduled to be more “unilateralist”, instead of “multilateralist” as many scholars earlier had predicted. The rise of China and the threat attached will add further vigor between India and the US.
The Biden team, as was implied, was seen to be the agenda maker. Seen as a positive break from Trump’s “chaotic” foreign policy, the short record of Biden’s foreign policy shows off a very good start. Covid-19 and a domestic economic fallout led many analysts to assume an apathy towards external affairs in general under the Biden presidency, with more emphasis at the domestic forefront.
But that was quickly nullified when the first QUAD meeting was held in March by Biden, at such a quick pace. This also forecasts the importance granted by the US to the body and its associated interests in the region. Given the recently strained relationship with China, for both India and the US, the power competition in the Indo-Pacific is thus set to be more coalition-driven, with India acting as a major US ally against China.
While the narrative of Biden’s foreign policy greatly revolved around projecting India as a major ally, certain actions, however, proved to be major irritants in the relationship. The delayed vaccine response of the US during India’s second Covid wave, or the apathy of the Biden government to give India back its preferential GSP status, points out existing differences between the two states.
There also exist several divergences in the relationship mostly in respect to India’s western front. The US withdrawal from Afghanistan and its unilateral action greatly hurt India’s interests. India’s independent relations with Iran and Russia also act as big deterrents. 
The purchase of Russian S 400 missiles and the looming threat of CAATSA are the latest on that list. However, the eastern side of India provides a vast aspect of convergence of interests with the US. With the threatening rise of China, a changed power balance in Asia, QUAD’s role is few on that list.
The potential prospects for passionate Indo-US bilateral ties are immense. But to achieve that, certain factors need to be ensured by both sides first. The US needs to reassure India on reliability, India needs to prepare for more uncertainty and should continue to diversify partners. Both the countries need to successfully leverage each other’s strengths for their own benefits.

Post-pandemic future

Discussant Robinder Nath Sachdev, President, The Imagindia Institute, New Delhi, and founder, Lemonade Party, said that the post-Covid era is going to undo certain trends and replace them with newer ones. Climate change, clamoring for power between states, economy and many such factors are going to be the primary determinants of this post-Covid world.
Biden in such circumstances once again is attempting for once a century investment within the American domestic market. The main challenge that now exists for India is to determine how much it can safely trust the US. He reiterated Prof Ollapally’s differentiation of convergent and divergent scenarios in India’s East and West respectively. As now can be witnessed, too much cozying up with the US had also been hurting India’s foreign relations elsewhere, like Iran and Russia.
In response to Sachdev’s assertions, Prof Ollapally reiterated the need for greater cooperation in the field of pandemics and climate change. The break in US unilateralism and the power shift demands projects a much more competitive global environment. The question that now becomes imperative is the mammoth task of managing all these aspects together. Arrangements like AUKUS, QUAD, etc. also complicate the security and strategic situation.
The straight-up black and white binary, countries like the US conjured up, between authoritarian and democratic regimes, blatantly ignoring the grey areas, will have implications for global cooperation and convergence. Sachdev also highlighted the menace of terrorism, lack of convergences on its definition, and the implications for the same. 
Lack of consensus among US allies, mutual apprehensions at the recent AUKUS deal suggested several impediments when it comes to the question of tackling security aspects in an increasingly competitive world.
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*CEO, IMPRI. Acknowledgment: Anondeeta Chakraborty, Research Intern at IMPRI

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