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Although President Donald Trump deeply damaged the United States at home and many of its interests abroad, U.S.-India relations surprisingly thrived during his tenure. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s personal relationship with Trump helped New Delhi secure benefits even in an “America First” presidency. While India suffered some economic pain, bilateral strategic ties prospered as Trump’s administration gave India pride of place in U.S. national security thinking, offered it previously unavailable advanced military equipment, and supported it comprehensively in its crises with Pakistan and China.

New Delhi’s First Take

Despite these gains, Modi often walked on eggshells when dealing with Trump. U.S. President-elect Joe Biden’s victory promises comfort on this score. Not surprisingly, Indian leaders across the political spectrum have welcomed Biden’s election, with Modi tweeting congratulations on Biden’s “spectacular victory” and emphasizing his past contributions to bilateral relations. A separate tweet, congratulating U.S. Vice President–elect Kamala Harris, communicated the pride that Indians feel on seeing an American of Indian ancestry rise to the second-highest office in the country. These sentiments collectively express New Delhi’s hope that the U.S.-India partnership will expand both because of strategic convergence and the Biden-Harris links to India.

This promise notwithstanding, uncertainties abound as New Delhi swiftly pivots to deal with the incoming U.S. administration. Modi’s conspicuous embrace of Trump can be explained away by saying his actions served India well in their time. But the gnawing qualms surrounding possible shifts in U.S. policy cannot be dismissed as easily.

Four Possible Shifts Ahead

Four issues remain particularly important. First, Biden’s policies toward China and Pakistan could disrupt India’s current strategy. Whatever the complications for the United States, Trump’s strident opposition toward China served Indian interests well. India could avoid frenetically balancing against China and, until the recent troubles on the border, could actually entertain cooperation with Beijing. India thus enjoyed the best of both worlds: limiting China’s opposition toward itself while having its rival constrained by American hostility.

A more nuanced U.S. competition with China—which could represent Biden’s correction of extant U.S. policy—would undermine this Indian calculus and push New Delhi toward options it would prefer to avoid. Although it is unlikely that Biden will change course radically in respect to Pakistan—or Afghanistan—even subtle changes that presage greater U.S. cooperation with Islamabad hold the potential of undermining Indian interests.

Second, Biden’s approach to U.S.-India trade disputes is unclear. India seeks reinstatement of its privileged access as a developing country to the U.S. market. Trump abolished this benefit and Biden may not restore it without greater U.S. access to the Indian market in return—exactly when New Delhi itself has become more protectionist. More liberal U.S. visa policies for Indian professionals could take the sting out of these trade problems, which appear poised to fester nonetheless.

Ashley J. Tellis
Ashley J. Tellis holds the Tata Chair for Strategic Affairs and is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, specializing in international security and U.S. foreign and defense policy with a special focus on Asia and the Indian subcontinent.
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Third, the Trump years represented a values holiday for the United States. Excepting its adversaries, the United States did not care much about what happened inside other countries in the areas of human rights, religious freedoms, and democratic practices. A Biden administration would likely be different, bringing domestic Indian political developments under greater U.S. scrutiny and possibly pushback.

Fourth, Biden’s commitment to dealing with transnational challenges such as climate change offers possibilities for U.S.-Indian cooperation in principle, but it could also lead to frictions depending on what is asked of India. Moreover, U.S. and Indian visions of global order have important differences and there could be as many opportunities for irritations as cooperation, including in multilateral institutions where both partners interact.

The official Indian enthusiasm about Biden’s election, therefore, should not obscure the concerns of Indian policymakers as they attempt to protect the gains they sometimes unexpectedly received from Trump. Biden’s administration will unquestionably be good for America in diverse ways. But whether it can satisfy Indian strategic interests going forward remains a big question in New Delhi.