The tamasha of United States Presidential polls is upon us. Difficult to find a more globally consequential event that is also such an entertaining and fascinating spectacle. Just as the outcome will have a bearing on the great power game and change power equations, it will impact India and hold policy consequence for New Delhi.
It is a fool’s errand to predict elections that are free and fair, but it does seem as if Donald Trump will remain a one-term President. At this stage, the prospects of a Joe Biden administration look bright.
The Democrats are still suffering from the 2016 nightmare where many Bernie Sanders voters were thought to have defected to Trump since they were angry with the Hillary Clinton nomination so this time the Democrats are taking no chances.
At the ongoing Democratic National Convention, Sanders — the party’s Left-wing icon — implored his backers to go out and vote for Biden while former president Barack Obama cast it in more catastrophic terms, warning Americans that “this (Trump) administration has shown it will tear our democracy down if that’s what it takes to win. So, we have to get busy building it up — by pouring all our effort into these 76 days, and by voting like never before — for Joe and Kamala.”
Since all polls are indicating that the Democrats will return to power, much as India must get ready to deal with whatever the outcome of US domestic politics, it is worth discussing the opportunities and difficulties that may arise in case Biden-Harris ticket wins in November. Before we do that, the Trump effect must be laid out.
The 45th US president has been a disruptor. He rewrote rules of engagement, challenged axiomatic policy assumptions, tore down established notions and structures, and set fire to iron-clad processes — at times appearing to side with adversaries at the cost of his allies. And yet the visceral churn, strangely, produced a much-stronger Indo-US partnership that broke new grounds and intensified cooperation.
This isn’t to say that with Trump at helm, the US-India relationship didn’t have its share of challenges. Trump’s Twitter diplomacy, fixation on trade deficit, extemporaneous policymaking, imposition of tariffs, termination of preferential trade status for India, suspending of immigration and freeze on H1B visas required engagement. On the strategic side, tightening of the sanctions noose on Iran and Russia ties pose economic challenges and has a bearing on India’s defence deals with Moscow.
However, these difficulties were largely mitigated by intensification of security, defence and strategic cooperation between the two sides underwritten by an urgent strategic alignment on China.
For the US, China is an economic, geopolitical and an increasing security challenge that threatens America’s post-Cold War primacy, undermines the institutions that it had put in place, questions Washington’s political system and ideological dominance. The Trump administration has framed this conflict in stark existential terms.
For India, China is a regional hegemon that constricts India’s rise, undermines its economic growth and balances New Delhi by propping up regional actors such as Pakistan. As Stimson Center fellow Yun Sun writes in War on the Rocks, “China believes in power politics and its own natural superiority. Beijing’s vision for Asia is strictly hierarchical — with China at the top — and does not consider India an equal.”
Amid the dovetailing of interests, two simultaneous churns taking place in India have further catalysed the cooperation. India is slowly moving past its Cold War skepticism of the US and realizing that internal balancing vis-a-vis China is proving to be difficult due to the difference in trajectory of economic growth. There has been a deliberative move towards external balancing and a speeding up of strategic ties with the US (signing of the foundational agreements, military exercises, greater interoperability) — a turn that’s also evident in New Delhi’s renewed interest in the Quad.
As Heritage Foundation fellow Jeff Smith observes in War on the Rocks, “The Quad’s return is a response to China’s increasingly assertive foreign policy and its authoritarian turn under Xi. The group stands on firmer ground today because India has become a much more committed and enthusiastic partner, and because the basis for cooperation among the four countries is more compelling now than it was a decade ago.”
The second, and more urgent churn has happened post Ladakh standoff, especially Galwan, and now India’s foreign policy is being driven by public opinion, denying policymakers the space and leisure to wait out the crisis. By killing Indian soldiers, a highly emotive issue among public, Beijing has created the urgency and political space for a greater alignment with US and decoupling with China at the risk of some self-harm.
Conversely, as Dhruv Jaishankar, director of the US Initiative at ORF, writes, “the Trump administration’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy, driven largely by a more competitive relationship with China, (has also) benefited India in various ways, including in bilateral defence cooperation and higher degrees of strategic coordination.”
In this backdrop, the election of Biden may bring its own set of variables. On the positive side, India may straightaway expect greater policy stability and conventional diplomacy. On trade, if the Obama-Biden days were any indication, the Democratic presidential nominee is unlikely to obsess over trade deficit figures and threaten retribution over Harley Davidson tariff. While reaching out to Indians during Independence Day, Biden promised to expand two-way trade “that opens markets and grows the middle class in both our countries” and working with India on “big global challenges like climate change and global health security.”
India’s biggest gain is likely to be in the field of immigration and company visa where Biden has promised to bring immigration reform and revoke the suspension on H1-B visas that are useful for Indian IT professionals.
Calling Trump’s policies as “cruel” and “inhumane”, Biden has promised that “on day one, I’m going to send the legislative immigration reform bill to Congress to provide a roadmap to citizenship for 11 million undocumented immigrants who contribute so much to this country, including 1.7 million from the AAPI community” as well as clear the backlog of green card applicants.
On Iran, India may expect some relief. To the extent that Biden has projected himself as a ‘restorationist’ with many of his policy prescriptions harking back to the Obama era, the US is likely to rejoin the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) but make it contingent on Iran abandoning its nuclear program. This translates into engagement, and it may open up some space for India to complete its projects.
These are significant areas for India, more so, as Jaishankar has argued in the analysis mentioned above, because a return of Trump administration may see a hardening of US positions on all these issues. However, Biden’s bigger impact on bilateral and strategic ties will largely depend on two factors — his China policy, and the extent to which Biden allows the party’s ‘progressive’ left-wing to make value-based interventions in foreign policy.
One of the reasons why Indo-US partnership became stronger in the Trump era is that Trump poured cold water over liberal internationalism, moving the US away from its traditional interventionist foreign policy posture and basing it on transactionalism. While this realist approach has its merits and demerits, this non-interference from Trump administration on affairs that New Delhi considers as sovereign and internal (Article 370 and CAA) allowed the space for building of trust. Worth noting that Trump administration had come under many attacks from the Democratic left-wing that had repeatedly accused India of going after its Muslim population.
President Trump is engaging in arms deals with Modi while his administration is ethnically cleansing the country’s religious minorities. We must not enable this rise in sectarian violence. https://t.co/WwUyf9cNCN
— Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@RepAOC) March 2, 2020
But first, China.
Trump administration’s all-out attack on China has made many American allies and partners uncomfortable but India doesn’t feature in that list. On the contrary, India has benefitted from Trump’s all hands-on-deck approach against China — partly the result of Trump team deciding on an anti-China campaign as the election plank.
China’s authoritarianism, territorial aggression, revanchism, exploitative and manipulative economic behavior, amoral approach to human rights and liberty, oppression of Muslim minorities, undermining liberal institutions, debt-trapping smaller nations through a multi-billion dollar expansionist project aren’t new issues, but Trump’s progressive souring of relation and a post-pandemic tough stance towards China is borne out of a realization that a large number of Americans blame China for the spread of COVID-19.
While Trump has therefore gone about creating fait accompli and casting US-China ties in an existential framework (egged on by China hawks within his administration and also triggered by China’s actions in Hong Kong), the timing has coincided with China’s renewed territorial aggression towards India.
Trump’s ‘maximum pressure’ campaign has been beneficial for India to the extent that wary of opening too many fronts at once, China’s approach on the Ladakh standoff — post the deadly Galwan clash — has been (at least rhetorically) conciliatory even though it has refused to restore status quo ante so far.
This is a chronological timeline of the administration’s actions towards China in 2020. You can visually see the number of items speeding up as the year progresses. The policy process, hill actions, COVID, HK/Xinjiang, and election politics are major contributors. pic.twitter.com/gORwktJQUO
— Eric Sayers (@DEricSayers) August 19, 2020
Biden has promised to be tough on China — partly to answer Trump’s charge that he is softer on China and partly out of a realization that the structural realities of US-China ties have changed irrevocably and there is a bipartisan consensus on tougher stance towards Beijing.
Accordingly, his views on China have undergone a tectonic shift, from being one of the ‘pro-engagers’ with Beijing to calling Xi Jinping a “thug” during the primaries and “making it clear” that the US “should not tolerate China’s human rights violations and should be moving 60 percent of its sea power to the Western Pacific to rebuild alliances and protect other folks.”
The Democratic presidential nominee, however, faces two problems. First, the centrality of China as a theme in US presidential polls and Trump administration’s scorched-earth policy leave Biden with little manouvering space.
Second, Biden, with his Democratic background and extensive foreign policy experience is touting a restorative foreign policy the tenets of which make his China policy incoherent and pulling in different directions.
As professor Van Jackson writes in Foreign Policy, “competing political demands are pulling Biden in opposing directions on China and they will continue to do so, because liberal internationalism is of two minds about China. The US must get tough on China but not resign itself to an existential rivalry. It must improve Taiwan’s defenses without increasing the risks of war. It must sanction China but ease tariffs. It must not inhibit free trade but pursue aspects of decoupling all the same. If this seems like a series of contradictions, that’s the point.”
Biden has so far gone about charting a careful middle path, renouncing another Cold War with China, stressing on alliances to counter Beijing, denouncing broad tariffs in favour of targeted ones while promising to increase US naval presence in Indo-Pacific to send a message to China that US “won’t back down” and leading a united front of “the free world” against China’s “high-tech authoritarianism” by shaping the “rules, norms, and institutions” that will govern the global use of new technologies such as artificial intelligence, according to his policy briefing at Council on Foreign Relations last year.
At the same time, Biden, who had facilitated China’s entry into the WTO in 2001 as a Senator, has promised to cooperate with China on some issues — differentiating his policy from that of Trump’s who has adopted a more overarching approach.
In his article in Foreign Affairs this year, Biden writes: “The US does need to get tough with China. If China has its way, it will keep robbing the US and American companies of their technology and intellectual property. The most effective way to meet that challenge is to build a united front of US allies and partners to confront China’s abusive behaviors and human rights violations, even as we seek to cooperate with Beijing on issues where our interests converge, such as climate change, nonproliferation, and global health security.”
Biden’s competitive-cooperative policy towards China differs from Trump’s prism of China as an existential threat, and Beijing — that has of late sought to downplay differences and engage with the US — may be hedging its bets that a Biden administration will create some space for engagement and even dial down the escalatory spiral. If and when that happens, it may create some dissonance in Indo-US strategic cooperation. The intensification of defence and intelligence cooperation has been underwritten by a shared threat emanating from China, and if New Delhi perceives that Biden Oval Office is bent on revising the notion that China is a vital threat to the US, then it may lead to trust issues in the partnership.
Notably, Biden had just one mention of India in the entire essay where he called for “deepening partnerships from India to Indonesia to advance shared values in a region that will determine the United States’ future.”
Biden did lay out a more exhaustive approach in a policy paper where he touted his role in strengthening US-India partnership and in pushing through the landmark civil nuclear agreement, and he has promised to “deliver on his long-standing belief that India and the United States are natural partners”, and announced that “a Biden Administration will place a high priority on continuing to strengthen the US-India relationship.”
At the very least, India will have to prepare for some uncertainties in the relationship though given his long career in foreign policy and as vice-president to Obama for eight years, India is familiar with Biden and his prospective team. The second threat to bilateral ties may come from the familiar circle, and this is where Biden — an old world middle-of-the-road centrist Democrat — will have to do a balancing act. He has picked as his running mate Kamala Harris in a hat tip to the progressive section of the party whose backing his crucial for Biden to make it through.
Harris may not be among the far-left, social justice Democrats but she has been a vocal critic of India on Kashmir, and in October last year raised the need for US “intervention” on Kashmir if the situation so demands. In her words: “We have to remind the Kashmiris that they are not alone in the world. We are keeping a track on the situation. There is a need to intervene if the situation demands.”
Harris has also come in support of her fellow Indian American Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal when her late inclusion in a panel led to India’s external affairs minister S Jaishankar refusing to attend a meeting of House Foreign Affairs Committee. The minister later told reporters that Jayapal’s resolution wasn’t a “fair understanding of the situation in Jammu and Kashmir or a fair characterisation of what the government of India is doing”.
It’s wrong for any foreign government to tell Congress what members are allowed in meetings on Capitol Hill. I stand with @RepJayapal, and I’m glad her colleagues in the House did too. https://t.co/PpbDoB0zKB
— Kamala Harris (@SenKamalaHarris) December 20, 2019
It isn’t just the inclusion of Harris. In the larger scheme of things, and faced by the structural realities of realpolitik, politicians do modify their approach while in office. As professor Harsh Pant has written in ORF, “Obama had come to office with a standard set of narrative about India, from non-proliferation to Kashmir. On all such issues he wanted to challenge New Delhi. By the time he left office, he had been converted and was one of India’s greatest friends.”
There is, however, a deeper reason at work. Biden’s outreach towards Muslim Americans is laid out on an extensive policy paper where India has come in for lengthy criticism due to its abrogation of Article 370 and promulgation of Citizenship Amendment Act. Apart from the fact that India’s decisions have been clubbed with China’s oppression of Uighur Muslim minority and Myanmar’s treatment of Rohingya Muslims — a comparison that won’t flatter New Delhi — Biden has sermonized that India’s measures — that are sovereign and passed via the Parliament by a democratically elected government — are “inconsistent with the country’s long tradition of secularism and with sustaining a multi-ethnic and multi-religious democracy.”
It is possible that this was necessary compromise done by the Biden campaign to accommodate the concerns of the ‘progressive’ Left-wing in a Faustian bargain for support. Such a possibility has been hinted at by a key Indian American figure in the Biden campaign.
Silicon Valley entrepreneur Ajay Jain Bhutoria, who has worked with the Obama-Biden administration in the past and has been elected as a delegate for Biden for the DNC, was quoted as saying by news agency PTI that “there are groups within various elected officials’ groups in US pushing language and agendas highlighting misinformation and damaging facts on how India handled its own internal matter on Kashmir, Ladakh or immigration reforms related to NRC.” Bhutoria, incidentally, is also on the National Finance Committee for Biden. https://www.theweek.in/news/world/2020/06/26/hindu-americans-upset-with-bidens-views-on-kashmir-caa-nrc.html
The issue is to what extent Biden will allow this faction to influence foreign policy and enforce value-based interventions. There’s an argument, made by Kashish Parpiani of ORF, that though Biden will lead the charge of a moderate platform, his foreign policy agenda may “witness the most substantial shifts given his little room for manoeuvre on ceding concessions on domestic issues like abolishing private insurance in the progressives’ call for ‘Medicare for All’.”
Notably, the Biden campaign is aware of the backlash in the Hindu-American community and a subtle shift of mood in the voter base, specifically among the older generation of Indian Americans who rue Biden’s lack of similar outreach towards Hindu Americans and consider Trump as a greater friend of India due to his non-interventionist foreign policy.
In response, Biden has come out with an extensive outreach towards Indian-American voters but even in that engagement, “freedom of expression and religion” have been described as one of the “core principles”. In the paper where India has come in for substantive criticism, Biden campaign has made an announcement that “fighting corruption, countering authoritarianism, and advancing human rights globally” will form his core foreign policy agenda.
As a seasoned Democrat and a diplomat, Biden would know that the time for such grand strategy is over. Ideological evangelism is not a viable geopolitical strategy when US as a global power is less dominant and has less freedom of action. Grand visions of ‘remaking the world in its own image’ is a strategic arrogance that reeks of post-Cold War era adventurism.
If the ‘progressive Left’ within the Democrats — that have relentlessly attacked India in the past — seeks to intervene in India’s sovereign and internal decisions, or at the very least delivers repeated pedagogic sermons on issues that they see through a monochromatic prism, then it may become difficult for Biden to conduct good-faith diplomacy with India, and consequently put a spanner in his very expansive notion of challenging China by “deepening partnership” with a crucial strategic partner.