Joe Biden's remarks on India-US ties are nice, but what relationship really needs is consistency

India doesn't really need a US that fights its battles on its behalf. If anything, what India could do without is the sort of erratic uncertainty Donald Trump has introduced into the bilateral

Karan Pradhan August 18, 2020 08:27:48 IST
Joe Biden's remarks on India-US ties are nice, but what relationship really needs is consistency

"I'll continue to believe and continue what I've long called for including — standing with India and confronting the threats it faces in its own region along its borders," said Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden to the Indian-American community on the occasion of India's 74th Independence Day. And with it came a cacophony of cheering and whooping among a handful of stakeholders — some Indian-Americans and Indians — who believe this to be a sign of things to come.

"Let the fools have their tartar sauce," said C Montgomery Burns in the second episode of the second season of The Simpsons (titled Simpson and Delilah) that aired on 18 October, 1990. And with it came a cacophony of cheering and whooping among stakeholders — some employees of the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant — who believed this to be a sign of good things to come.

Churlish comparisons between Biden and Burns — keeping in mind that the former is far younger than the finger-tenting, hounds-releasing and 'Excellent'-hissing centenarian owner of the aforementioned nuclear plant — aside, there are definite parallels to be drawn and explored between certain aspects (whether intentional or otherwise) of the two statements above.

As a matter of background, in his address to the Indian-American community over the weekend, the former vice-president alluded to the fact that in 2005, he was "leading the efforts to approve the historic civil nuclear deal with India". Pointing to his "constituents in Delaware, [his] staff in the Senate, the [Barack] Obama administration that had more Indian-Americans than any other administration in the history of this country, and [the ongoing] campaign with Indian-Americans at senior levels", Biden also brought up his running mate Kamala Harris' India connection.

He then recalled his pronouncements from 15 years ago, saying, "I said that if the US and India became closer friends and partners, then the world will be a safer place." While the first part of that sentence has most definitely come to fruition in the decade-and-a-half since his utterance, the second remains as elusive as — if not further away than — before. With reference to the two countries in question, this isn't due solely to external factors, but that's a topic for a different analysis. For this one, let's take a closer look at India-US relations this century.

'Comprehensive global strategic partnership'

A large section of observers of the bilateral rightly point to the July 2005 signing of the India–United States Civil Nuclear Agreement by the Manmohan Singh and George W Bush administrations as the turning point in relations between New Delhi and Washington. However, it was nearly a decade later that the relationship received a real shot in the arm in the form of the 'India-US Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean Region' signed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and then-president Barack Obama.

This set in motion a chain of events that saw among other notable landmarks, the US' recognition of India as a "Major Defence Partner", the signing of the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement, the announcement of India's elevation to the top tier of the US' Strategic Trade Authorisation (STA) licence exception and the first of the two countries' 2+2 ministerial dialogues. Elsewhere, cybersecurity cooperation, bilateral trade in goods and services (measured at $142 billion in 2018) and civilian space cooperation were the other beneficiaries of the energised India-US ties. The message that the 2015 strategic vision document sent out was that despite its non-aligned past and without compromising on its 'many partners, zero allies' position, India did not need to be squeamish about a closer aligning of its own interests with those of the US.

It was during Trump's visit to India in February this year that he remarked, "America loves India, America respects India, and America will always be faithful and loyal friends to the Indian people" before he joined Modi in signing a joint statement titled 'Vision and Principles for the United States-India Comprehensive Global Strategic Partnership'. In doing so, the relationship hailed by Obama as the 'defining partnership of the 21st Century' appeared to have been upgraded to a 'comprehensive global strategic partnership'.

Despite the disruptor

And now, a fifth of the way into the 21st Century, the bilateral has managed to progress on a reasonably upward trajectory without ruffling too many Russian feathers and despite the best efforts of a certain real estate tycoon-turned-politician to throw a spanner into the works. If he's not repeatedly berating India — most embarrassingly, at the Sardar Patel Stadium in Ahmedabad in front of an audience of a lakh (reportedly) in February — on trade tariffs, he's threatening New Delhi with 'retaliation' if adequate supplies of hydroxychloroquine aren't handed over, hitting out at the country's record of coronavirus testing or deciding on a whim to restrict H-1B visas.

Of course, Trump's relationship, as president, with India can best be categorised as that of a toddler with a light switch: On, off, on, off, on, off in a manner that causes irritation, consternation and a fair bit of stress, before the eventual reset to business-as-usual. This was seen most recently in the Trump administration's decision last week to ease H-1B and L-1 visa restrictions around 10 days after an Executive Order calling for a ban on technology workers with H-1B visas replacing American citizens in federal government contracts. And the reset to normal followed. Whether or not this decision was taken to win back Indian-Americans to the Trump cause after Harris (who has Indian roots) was unveiled as Biden's running mate is not known.

In spite of little hiccups like this one, the India-US relationship has built up enough resilience in 2020 to power through choppy waters independent of the person in the White House. That is principally because no matter the person or party in power, national interests remain largely unchanged.

The national interest

Calling for the US to "confront the threats [India] faces in its own region along its borders" while standing alongside it is a noble and grand thing for which to call, indeed. However, it's the wording of this statement by Biden as part of his address to Indian-Americans that is most instructive. "I'll continue to believe and continue what I've long called for...," he said. The US Senate last week saw the introduction of a bipartisan resolution condemning China's aggression towards India to change the status quo at the Line of Actual Control. This is tantamount to "calling for the US to" confront threats faced by India.

It's nice to know that American politicians on both sides of the aisle are united in condemning China's expansionist impulses, but that's all it is. And while it is far from India's contention that the US should fight battles on its behalf, New Delhi is aware that there is only so much anyone can really do about Beijing. Then there is the US' own national interest, something any president worth her/his salt should hold high atop one's list of priorities.

In the foreign policy realm, for Biden (if elected), this will include carrying out massive course-correction exercises, most notably with NATO and other treaty allies, Iran and China. With the latter, there will be a need to balance domestic concerns (whether economic, security-related or otherwise) with efforts to undo some of the harm caused to this extremely important bilateral ties by a combination of knee-jerk policy and vitriolic rhetoric. Biden and Xi Jinping share a personal bond that goes back to 2011, when the two leaders convened at least eight times over the next 18 months. Whatever benefit stands to be gained by this personal touch is likely to be lavished on fixing US-China relations.

Then there's Pakistan, the only other threat India faces in the region "along its own borders". Back in 2008, then-Pakistani president Asif Ali Zardari conferred upon Biden and fellow Senator Richard Lugar the Hilal-i-Pakistan, the country's second-highest civilian honour "in recognition of their consistent support for Pakistan". The duo had after all spearheaded a bipartisan aid plan calling for $1.5 billion per year in non-military spending to support economic development in Pakistan. Put into context, US assistance to Pakistan stood at $653 million in 2013, $630 million in 2014, $691 million in 2015, $687 million in 2016, $392 million in 2017 and $345 million in 2018.

After Trump's perceived closeness — the occasional little tantrum notwithstanding — to Modi, Islamabad will be looking forward to the presidency of a man viewed as a Pakistan's friend. And going forward, as the US prepares to leave Afghanistan after one of the most protracted campaigns in modern history, it will be banking heavily on Pakistan to ensure the region doesn't devolve into chaos. Put simply, Islamabad's cooperation has almost never been as crucial since the times of the Soviets and General Zia-ul-Haq.

What this all boils down to then is that while the former US vice-president will undoubtedly endeavour to take the India-US relationship to new heights, there will be other critical considerations for him and his administration, should he be elected. These include avoiding needlessly antagonising China and Pakistan.

Indian-Americans and India 

A critical distinction must be drawn here between Indian-Americans and India. Without claiming that either of these two entities operate in isolation, their priorities are different, even if small overlaps do occur. After all, Indian-Americans are as American as Italian-Americans or African-Americans, ergo share more common interests with those groups than with those back in India. This isn't to claim that Indian-Americans don't turn up in large numbers decked up in all their finery, playing up every ounce of their Indianness, whenever Modi's in town and gracing a stadium with his presence, but that's neither here nor there.

A glance at the section on Indian-Americans on Biden's official website makes this distinction clearer. Of the nine action items, the first eight rightly focus on domestic and arguably more pressing priorities (ranging from education to freedom from bigotry) for the Indian-American community. The ninth pertains to the India-US relationship and for those keeping track, you'll be pleased to know it contains that weary cliché about the "world's oldest and largest democracies" and their "shared democratic values".

This encapsulates the fact that while it is a matter of interest for the Indian-American community, it isn't really the highest priority (nor, it can be argued, should it necessarily be) and for now, a throwaway mention of calling for the US to stand by India is enough, just like the addition of tartar sauce to a cafeteria menu. No one expects it to be a deal-breaker or a life-changing development; it's just a nice addition (and one that'll get a few cheers at least) to a set of commitments to Indian-Americans — a community that, lest we forget, will be directly responsible for whether or not Biden comes to power, unlike the country of India which has no say in the matter and far less skin in the game.

In summation, there is no reason to doubt Biden's intent and genuine interest in seeing India-US relations improve. This includes wanting to see an increase in trade with its 'comprehensive global strategic partner' as well as cautioning said partner against going down dangerous policy routes that threaten to alienate significant sections of its population. While it would be nice if the US was, in fact, able to prevail upon countries causing India strife on its borders to calm down and take a step back, Washington has its own interests that it will seek to address first.

India doesn't really need a US that fights its battles on its behalf. If anything, what India could do with is consistency in the bilateral — in terms of policy, messaging and engagement — and not the sort of uncertainty — threats, random criticism and claims of fabricated conversations — Trump has introduced to the otherwise stable bilateral. As a career politician who has a proven track record of engaging with world leaders, Biden could do just that. For now, that'll do just fine.

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