Unlike most U.S. allies who were bruised by former U.S. president Donald Trump’s policies, India escaped largely unscathed. Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, India’s foreign minister, succinctly described the reasons for this outcome when he noted, “In the Trump vision of the world, allies have disappointed America and competitors have cheated it. India is fortunate in being neither.” Consequently, for all the benefits that President Joe Biden’s arrival promised to the United States and the larger international order, Trump’s defeat produced palpable uncertainties in New Delhi. One hundred days into Biden’s presidency, these doubts have not been erased, but they have been allayed.
China Is a Shared Adversary
In large part, this is because strategic issues and transnational matters have consumed the early attention of both governments—areas in which their interests significantly converge. New Delhi has been reassured by the Biden administration’s persistence with the tough-minded approach toward China. New Delhi had earlier welcomed the Trump administration’s bare-knuckled combat with Beijing because this approach offered India support while the Indian government was coping with China’s aggression along its frontiers. The Biden team’s interactions with China thus far have clearly conveyed that Washington is indeed attuned to the challenges that China poses not only to the United States but also to Asia’s larger regional order. As a result, India’s lurking fears that Washington might return to colluding with Beijing—the source of many unhappy memories in New Delhi—have been alleviated.
In fact, the Biden administration’s conduct thus far has only underscored its conviction that China is now the most dangerous U.S. competitor on the global stage. The administration’s decision to preserve Trump’s tariffs on China and to work with allies in tightening Beijing’s access to high technology appeals to India. But the U.S. initiative to convene a meeting of the heads of the Quad countries and U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin’s visit to India—both of which occurred early in the administration’s tenure—have sent the clearest message of reassurance to New Delhi that this strategic convergence remains strong. Despite New Delhi’s initial reservations about the Quad meeting, the Biden administration’s efforts conveyed two striking signals. First, they showed that Washington recognizes that the traditional business-first approach to China no longer serves its strategic interests. Second, they demonstrated that Washington is serious about pursuing coalition-based strategies to constrain China—strategies in which India will play a prominent role.
Will Strategic Cooperation Smooth Over Other Difficulties?
While the details of what a considered U.S. policy toward China might be are still unclear, the early signs have been heartening to India and help to validate Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s larger bet on the United States. To be sure, there are still differences between the two sides. Biden’s announcement of a complete U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan remains one such example, but Washington’s efforts to integrate New Delhi into a regional solution offer hope that such divergences can be managed. The way Biden has resisted prioritizing Pakistan in this process also augurs well for continued U.S.-Indian cooperation. The commitment to preserving the strong partnership that Washington and New Delhi share thus offers confidence that both nations can manage other divergences on strategic matters as well, such as those on freedom of navigation in India’s exclusive economic zone.
The early focus on transnational matters, such as vaccine cooperation to defeat the coronavirus pandemic and resuscitated efforts to confront climate change, also provided scope for the Biden administration to strengthen bilateral ties with India. The Quad’s support for India’s pharmaceutical industry to help manufacture vaccines for global distribution and Biden’s decision to avoid demanding that India quickly commit to net-zero emissions have transformed potentially prickly transnational challenges into new opportunities for cooperation.
This attitude has produced welcome gains and, despite early fumbles, the administration’s support for India in managing its current spike in COVID-19 cases will hopefully deflate the unjustified complaints about the U.S. Defense Production Act being the principal cause of India’s vaccine woes. The administration’s emergency response will not offset India’s failure to invest early in expanding its vaccine manufacturing capability, but it will strengthen the buffers that could help to insulate the difficulties that are certain to arise in other dimensions of the relationship.
These difficulties will likely surface in bilateral economic relations and in discussions about the travails of India’s democracy. The problems that the United States traditionally has faced regarding market access in India are now exacerbated by India’s emerging policies on e-commerce and data localization, issues that are susceptible to neither easy resolution nor quick solutions that would satisfy the United States. The Biden administration, for its part, appears to be looking for ways to defuse these problems: toward that end, it has put the dispute about U.S. H visas on the backburner, and it has proposed only modest tariffs on Indian imports in retaliation for India’s digital taxes primarily to get New Delhi to participate in serious negotiations.
The concerns about India’s democracy may prove trickier to manage. The fears that India might be gravitating toward illiberalism, even as it remains vibrant electorally, are growing within the United States and elsewhere. Inside the American executive branch, the dismay about the deterioration of India’s democracy is no longer hidden, and within the U.S. Congress and in American civil society, these anxieties are now openly articulated.
The Path Ahead
The Biden administration—partly because it has not finished appointing officials to key positions and partly because the necessity for an integrated policy toward India has not yet been prioritized in the face of other national challenges—will have to figure out how to balance various competing interests in its approach to India. For the moment, the priority on deepening strategic ties to cope with the challenges posed by China and securing India’s cooperation to deal with transnational problems have pushed other nettlesome issues to the sidelines.
Once the Biden administration’s appointees are fully in place, however, the debates about how U.S.-India relations are to be managed will grow, even within the executive branch itself. This discussion will require careful attention at senior levels of government to devise deft policy approaches, as the recent response to India’s vaccine crisis amply demonstrated. Another conundrum that lies just over the horizon pertains to whether the administration should grant waivers on U.S. sanctions for India’s purchase of advanced weapons from Russia. When such contentious issues involve the U.S. Congress and various nongovernmental organizations, the challenges to developing satisfactory solutions will only become more onerous.
While the Biden administration has therefore done well to get the bilateral relationship off to a good start in the face of what were initial uncertainties, whether this strategic partnership will thrive—as opposed to merely muddling through—depends greatly on careful stewardship by leaders and officials in both capitals and the finesse with which both sides handle the problems that even today are all too apparent in both Washington and New Delhi.