The US enters a new era with Joe Biden replacing Donald Trump in the White House, and with it begins a new era of Indo-US bilateral relations wherein India is preparing to pick up where it left off with Trump. For the past four years, we have seen extra bonhomie between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Donald Trump; while the former called the latter ‘friend’ the latter also addressed the former as ‘friend’. The whole of India witnessed this spectacle in Ahmedabad in February 2020 when both Modi and Trump walked and talked like two very close allies. But that era is history. An early sign is too early to explain as the Prime Minister spoke to Biden, and with congratulation came the firm commitment to take the strategic partnership forward.
Joe Biden is a different figure with a different mind-set and different agenda, and hence India needs to recalibrate its strategies to the changing global scenario. We recall Biden speaking his views on Jammu and Kashmir, particularly when India repealed article 370; we also observed Biden speaking his mind in the wake of anti-CAA and anti-NRC protests. But dealing with India as a whole is a different ballgame. At least, for President-elect Joe Biden, bilateral relations are even crucial. He knows the US has a long struggle with China ahead, in terms of trade conflicts and in terms of strategic dominance. He knows India is at loggerhead with China and how India has dealt with China firmly so far. In order to have its say in south Asia, Biden needs India more than India needs the US for handling Chinese intrusion and heist. Albeit India has the political will and institutional capacity to take on Chinese aggression on the border, it does follow international conventions and never minds taking the support of the US, but India possesses such self-esteem that it does not rely on the US to safeguard its territorial integrity.
In the future course of Indo-US relations, US-China relations can be seen as a strategic factor that could influence India-China relations. The world knows that US-China relations are certainly on the hot turf if we take Pew Research Centre survey 2020 seriously wherein 73% of American show unfavourable view of China while 24% see China as the top threat for the US. The US-China conflict from the Korean War and the Vietnam War down to the tussle over territorial issues in the South China Sea to President Barak Obama’s East Asia Strategy, a shift in the US policy of relocating investment plan from the Middle East to the East Asian countries irked China. President Donald Trump’s era added woe to the strained relations when his administration called China a strategic competitor, raised the issue of army build-up in Asia, arming South Korea with TAAD Missiles, favour Japan’s sovereignty over Senkaku Islands which is claimed by China.
Then we have the trade war between the US and China: In January 2018, Trump imposed levies on steel and aluminium imports from China and China retaliated by enforcing punitive tariffs on 128 American products. Throughout the year 2018, the trade war continued, and in January 2019 The Wall Street reported despite the Trump administration’s tariff imposition, China’s surplus in 2018 was $323.32 billion, and therefore, President Trump increased the tariff rate from 10% to 25% on $200 billion of Chinese goods. In September 2020, a three-member panel of WTO found that the tariff imposed on Chinese goods was in violation of international trade rules. The world, as well as India, can hope bilateral trade war between the two will continue in near future.
In such a close trade war between the US and China in which the former finds the latter a formidable competitor, India comes into the picture as a close ally for the US so that it could wield some balancing act in South Asia, and with firm, Narendra Modi at the helm of affairs with known, long-time hostility with China, the US is badly in need of a strong partner to carry on with its America-led world order. During the cold war when India’s first Prime Minister Jawahar Lal Nehru visited the US in October 1949, India asserted its non-alignment leadership role. During the 1962 India-China war, the US announced support, but it did not materialize into action and post-1965 war with Pakistan, the strategic and military ties remained frozen. In his book Foreign Intrigues against India, Bhagat Vats argued: “When the Chinese attacked India in October 1962, America and Britain give nominal aid but with the sinister condition that India should settle the Kashmir question with Pakistan. They talked less of China but more of Kashmir”.
In 1971, the US sided with Pakistan, and hence India had to adjust its non-alignment policy and signed the twenty-year Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation with the erstwhile USSR. The US then dispatched the nuclear-powered Seventh Fleet USS Enterprise into the Bay of Bengal with an excuse of evacuating US citizens in Bangladesh (then East Pakistan). It was a hostile move on the part of the US to threaten India with its superior military power. When Admiral S M Nanda, in an important meeting of three defence services of India, repeatedly reminded Mrs. India Gandhi of USS Enterprise threat, the gritty Prime Minister just ignored him because she knew India could handle such a security bluff. The US threat was met with two responses: the counter-threat by the USSR and the firm stand by the late Prime Minister Mrs Gandhi. In response to Mrs. Gandhi’s letter to President Nixon and L K Jha’s (the Indian ambassador to US) concerns over the turn of events in East Pakistan, Henry Kissinger threatened with an economic embargo against India. In the UN Security Council, President Nixon heavily criticized India.
In 1974, when Mrs. Gandi was successful in seeing India’s first experiment with nuclear detonation at Pokhran, the US reacted sharply and surprisingly, as The Economic Times put it succinctly in an article by Srinivas Laman “How Smiling Buddha Caught US off-guard in 1974” in April 2017. Retaliation from the US was well calculated since four years later, it came up with the Nuclear Non-proliferation Act which allowed inspections of all nuclear facilities by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) which was founded in 1957, the year when only three nations – the US, USSR and UK – were nuclear power. India rightly refused. Who stopped France to go nuclear in 1960 and China and Israel in the 1960s? And the NPT was imposed in 1970 and five nations sat on what Gabrielle Hecht called the Board of Governors to decide which nation would possess nukes and which not. Similar US policy trails followed in 1998 when India conducted nuclear tests and President Bill Clinton, who imposed economic sanctions against India and New Delhi in March 2000 to defuse bilateral tension, yet reiterated that India should sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), which was lifted in 2001 by President George W Bush.
The US stand on Jammu and Kashmir has been problematic for India since it kept a cryptic silence over Pakistan intrusion in 1948 and from then on the US has never been interested in finding a solution by restraining Pakistan’s proxy war. Rather the US aided Pakistan militarily to escalate the tension, which began in the 1990s and continued till today. Rather the US offered the proposal for arbitration via a plebiscite, not acceptable to India, and it saw such a resolution introduced in 1962 in the Security Council. It was the USSR that vetoed the resolution which was followed by belligerent criticism of India by the US media, for example, The New York Tribune wrote an editorial entitled India Hides behind Russia’s Veto. On the matter of the Goa Crisis, and its accession to India, the US supported Portugal since it is a member of NATO. A resolution was moved in the Security Council against India but could not be passed due to the veto used by the Soviet Union in favour of India.
We can rightly presume India-US relations will move on with greater trust and mutual cooperation in the Biden era. Indian can be more practical than optimistic when there is a Kamala Harris around. In campaigns, Harris spoke of her Indian roots, but how far it will translate into extending strategic support to India remains to be seen. From Truman to Trump and now to Biden, the US policy towards China will be based on a policy of containment as devised by George F Kennan and India, just like NATO, will act as a strategic partner, and once India will become bigger than China in competing the US, some other state would act as a strategic partner while India will be China to face the policy of containment.