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Trump or Biden: How will India-US Jugalbandi Fare?

Trump or Biden: How will India-US Jugalbandi Fare?

Diplomatic Monologue
Amit Dasgupta


New Dehli: Results as to who would occupy the White House are still not conclusive. What is clear is that it is not a one-sided contest. Today, the India-US relationship is much stronger than ever before and enjoys bipartisan support. The visit of the US Secretaries of State and of Defense for the 2+2 Dialogue, barely a week before the US Presidential elections is clear testimony to this.

But what particularly stands out is the robust nature of the relationship reflecting a tapestry of shared concerns and aspirations that have led to a strategic convergence. There was also no ambiguity on perceptions and indeed, strategies vis-à-vis Beijing. At the same time, it bears recalling that at thehighest political level, strong and personal bonds have been forged. Prime Minister Modi enjoyed a personal equation with President Obama, as also with President Trump.

The nature of democracies is such that elections can bring about a change in leadership and possibly a strategic shift that other countries need to adjust to. Foreign Offices across the globe are carrying out detailed analyses as to what might happen should Biden occupy the White House or if Trump wins a second term. India is no exception. While the maturity of a nation’s foreign policy is tested by its ability to intensify and deepen bilateral relations irrespective of who wins the election, New Delhi will be relieved that the relationship has sufficiently matured to enjoy bipartisan support.

If Trump Wins

With regard to Trump, with whom Modi has enjoyed a particularly warm relationship, India finds great comfort that his views on cross-border terrorism, Pakistan and China, in particular, coincide with those of India. There are other areas of convergence as well, particularly with regard to multilateral institutions, such as, the WTO and the UN that India genuinely believes to be out of sync with changed circumstances and global realities.

Trump, in his second term, is expected to continue hishardline on the China virus, as also Beijing’s expansionist agenda – militarily, technologically, territorially and economically. Making China accountable is likely to be a key mantra. This will undoubtedly aggravate tensions and also trigger a trade war that could hurt the already hurting global economy. But Trump will, however, see his endorsement for a second term, as support from American citizens against China’s aggressive posturing.

While much of this might work in New Delhi’s favour, there are a series of other issues in which India would be severely disadvantaged under Trump. There would be mounting pressure on India to open up her markets. The exit of Harley Davidson from India has not gone down well. In other words, we could see a clash between ‘putting America first’ and ‘Make in India’.

On defense purchases, Washington would try and lock India into buying only US-made products and every attempt to buy from Russia or Israel or other countries would require discussions with and approval of Washington. This is not desirable, as it would delay acquisitions, crate bad blood and limit options.

There are also serious and unfortunate challenges that India faces and would continue to face on the foreign policy front. An accepted dictum is that when you make new friends, you never forget old friends. Proximity to Washington has damaged equations with Moscow – a friend for over eight decades – and also with Iran. The fact that China has stationed Russian built S-300 and S-400 missiles along the Ladakh border, giving it a cutting edge, is not lost on New Delhi. A distancing from either Moscow or Teheran can only checkmate India’s reputation and interests.

If Biden Wins

Biden is comparatively unknown, even though he is familiar with India, having visited as a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, when he was Vice President in the Obama Administration. Indian Americans, who constitute barely one percent of the electoral votes and are by and large Democrats, are not likely to help shape results. Nevertheless, they were jubilant at the nomination of Kamala Harris, as the running mate, because they saw in her ‘one of our own’.

Kamala Harris has suddenly been catapulted to a significant position. While this is welcome, it is childish to assume that her half-Indian roots would make her pro-India. What we need to recognize is that she is a Democrat and that she is a US citizen. US interests would be foremost in her mind, as indeed, it ought to be, along with the ideology of the Democratic party. This makes it easier to understand her criticism of our Kashmir policy. She can, similarly, be expected to raise issues of human rights concern or treatment of minorities, especially Muslims, as did President Obama at a public function when he visited India, and on caste-based violence. Sulking when this happens does not help our cause. In any case, whether Biden wins or loses, it would be in India’s strategic interest to build a relationship with Kamala Harris and other Indian Americans, who are in politics and in positions of influence that go against the grain of thinking of the present or future governments. It would reflect maturity of our diplomacy.

On matters related to foreign and security policy, Biden hasn’t provided clarity. On China, while he appears to give the impression of strong action, it is not clear as to what this means, either with regard to South China Seas, cyber espionage, human rights violations and Hongkong, the China virus, the support to Pakistan or even, the aggression against India. Would he reduce tariffs or maintain them? Beijing claims they have ‘dirt’ on Biden that they would not hesitate tuse should his policies hurt Chinese interests. Despite bipartisan support for the India-US relationship, India would be keen to see assurances of continued pressure on Beijing to behave.

There would also be discomfort that the Biden-Harris combine would not hesitate to chide India on issues that New Delhi would classify as ‘internal’. Such a response is not likely to satisfy Biden or Harris nor would it quell their questioning. Any Democrat government would do this because it is part of their DNA and manifesto. New Delhi would need to find

a way of handling this without jeopardizing the bilateral template.

The Fog of Uncertainty

US Presidential elections impact lives across the world. With lack of clarity on who might occupy the White House, a thick fog of uncertainty has enveloped the landscape, causing extreme confusion. For Beijing, uncertainty works in their favoure. For the rest of the world and, indeed, for India, it certainly does not.

New Delhi faces a serious challenge in terms of its relationship with an increasingly belligerent Beijing. She recognizes that it would take time before the new Administration settles down in the US, while the urgency vis-à-vis Beijing would only escalate. Consequently, it would need to moderate the situation as rapidly as possible. The diplomatic engagement with China has, thus, not stopped nor indeed, should it. At the same time, what Beijing needs to recognize is that we do have allies who would balance the equation. This explains New Delhi’s anxiety and need for urgency to know who would finally emerge victorious in this confusing close contest.

(Amit Dasgupta is a former Indian diplomat. The views expressed are personal.)


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