[Burning Issue] Regime change in the US

This January 20th officially marked the end of the Trump era in US politics as Joe Biden took over from him to become the 46th president of the United States of America. This major event is seen worldwide as undoing or a reset of American regressive protectionist policies and moves by Donald Trump.

The world has been waiting for the day to unfold the broad contours of the policy on globalization and international relations. Most expect a return to the pre-Trump era with the US playing a more active role in world dynamics.

India welcomes Biden

PM Modi has personally congratulated Biden on his success and used the occasion to emphasize on the importance of strategic partnership between the two countries.  There is no doubt that the change of regime in the US will not affect the time-tested foundations of this friendship that were in fact laid with Obama administration declaring India as a major defense partner of the U.S.

But much water has flown down the bridge since the time of Obama-Biden rule in the US after Trump.

Lets’ have a look over recent developments in India-US ties:

India’s relationship with the US has been largely confined only on strategic terms and the ties have been unusually constructive under Trump administration.

In the strategic domain, this included, the finalization of many agreements and ministerial and QUAD meets among others.

Challenges before the new regime

President Joe Biden faces a slew of important foreign policy challenges some of which include:

(A) Climate change

  • Joe Biden has warned the climate crisis poses an “existential threat” to the world as he unveiled a radical change in direction from the Trump era by halting fossil fuel activity on public lands.
  • He reaffirmed US commitment for Paris Agreement.
  • Biden said he will host an early Leaders’ Climate Summit aimed at raising climate ambition and making a positive contribution to the COP26 and beyond.

(B) China’s expansionism

  • The coalition against China is likely to persist and ties with India and other Pacific nations, including Japan and Australia, may be further boosted.
  • Ties with Beijing were remarkably tense during the Trump administration.
  • The newly administered pentagon has continued Trumps legacy against China’s expansionist moves in the South East Asia.

(C) Pakistan and terror

  • The Biden administration considers Pakistan a “major non-NATO ally,” a status bestowed upon only seventeen countries that facilitate military trade and cooperation.
  • However, in reality, Pakistan has not acted as an ally ever. The listing of Pakistan in FATF ‘Grey List’ clearly indicates its ambiguous policies.
  • It is against this backdrop that new US president Joe Biden must now confront the Pakistan test of appeasement of the new regime.

(Lets’ not get into what the US prospect plans are with the Russia, Taliban and Afghanistan.)

India’s expectations from the new regime

  • The US and India see each other as key strategic partners and analysts expect Indo-US relations to be less strained.
  • The major change India is hoping for is in terms of—software exports, H1 visa policy, minimum compensation for engineers via which Trump tried discouraging hiring Indian IT professionals.
  • Of late, the US was seen pressurizing India on its Agri subsidy policy, for which, there may not be a major shift, but it might be easier to deal with the new regime.

Defense priorities

  • The new administration under Biden has iterated that India is ‘bipartisan success story’, and made it clear that strategic ties with India will remain strong, especially on the Indo-Pacific.
  • It ensured continuity from the Trump administration in dealing with China’s aggressive actions.

India’s concerns remain

South Asia does not seem to be a priority operational theatre for the new US administration. The Indian apprehension with regard to the Biden liberal administration seems to be a hard-press on various issues like:

(A) Policies toward China and Pakistan

  • This could disrupt India’s current strategy. Whatever the complications for the US, Trump’s strident opposition toward China served Indian interests well.
  • India could avoid 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.

(B) Trade disputes

  • 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 Atmanirbhar.
  • More liberal U.S. visa policies for Indian professionals could take the sting out of these trade problems.

(C) Look-out policies

  • 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.
  • This could invite undue interference on Kashmir matters as well.

(C) Iran

  • To be a friend of Iran and the US at the same time is getting more and more difficult day by day.
  • New Delhi may have to face a disappointment with Washington to continue its oil imports from Iran
  • After all, India needs Iran because of Chabahar and Afghanistan — where the American withdrawal is another bone of contention.

Why does this regime change impacts India?

(A) Support against terrorism

  • This intense engagement has helped achieve robust support from the US against terrorism.
  • This was evident after the Pulwama attack last year, leading to designation of Jaish-e-Mohammed chief Masood Azhar as a global terrorist under UN Security Council Resolution 1267, and the placing of Pakistan on the grey-list of the FATF.

(B) Defence ties

  • For India, its relationship with the US on defence issues has strengthened. India has procured over $18 billion worth of defence items from the US, almost half of this in the last five years.
  • India conducts more bilateral exercises with the US than with any other country.

(C) Energy

  • The other area where the relationship has grown in recent years is energy.
  • The bilateral Strategic Energy Partnership was launched in April 2018; India has started importing crude and LNG from the US from 2017 and 2018 respectively.
  • The total imports are estimated at $6.7 billion — having grown from zero.

(D) Trade

  • In the backdrop of the global economic slowdown, where India’s global exports have fallen consistently, it is important for the country to diversify and strengthen bilateral relations with other markets.
  • It has set its sights on “large developed markets”, improved access to which would help its industry and services sectors.
  • These include the US, which has, over the last two decades, become a crucial trading partner in terms of both goods and services.

US has no alternatives to India

(A) India as an open data market

  • India is, after all, the largest open data market in the universe. Per capita, more data is consumed in India than anywhere else in the world.
  • For American “big tech” firms, India provides a scale for their products unavailable in any other country.
  • Despite current economic woes, this will continue to be the largest growing and relatively open consumer market for American products and business.

(B) Indian-Americans

  • About 4.5 million people of Indian origin live in the US today, but despite their relatively small numbers, Indian Americans are a growing political force in the country.
  • Trump and even Biden has sought to court the Indian-American vote in the run-up to the 2020 election.

(C) India as a defence partner

  • India is also a large arms importer.
  • Defence trade is widely seen as the silver lining in this relationship – US-India defence deals have ballooned in the past decade, from nearly zero in 2008 to a little more than $15bn in 2019.

(D) Solution to China’s hegemony

  • On the trade front, India can be an effective supplier rather than being an outsourcing hub if compared to China.
  • Strategically also, the U.S. views India as a platform to contain China’s hegemony in the Indo-Pacific.
  • India sees it as an opportunity for economic expansion, with the U.S. being an equal partner.

Way forward

  • There are rising concerns in the US about India’s fiscal limitations, its ties with Russia, its ponderous response to a pattern of Chinese provocations on its border, and its drift toward illiberal politics.
  • The current state of play suggests that the two countries might come at a crossroads.
  • India should be prepared to face a situation where Biden presidency is fully geared to deal with Chinese aggressiveness in the Indo-Pacific region militarily through QUAD.
  • India has to continue building its defence forces to counter any joint mischief by Pakistan and China on our borders even as our military-level talks with China for disengagement on LAC in Ladakh are kept up.
  • Also, India has to use all international forums to warn the democratic world against the grave threat of terrorism that it faces on account of the spread of radicalization.

Conclusion

  • President Trump would be remembered for breaking from the traditional polity to confront the new challenges of the present, for shifting the focus from international politics to the domestic situation.
  • As usual, India cheers the inevitable strong support by the US on multiple fronts discussed above.  
  • However, India needs to keep the new US regime on its side for strategic and security reasons.
  • Till then, India should keenly watch Joe Biden unfold his foreign policy agenda.
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