By: Kirti Sharma, Research Analyst, GSDN
The unfolding geo-economic and geo-political “complex interdependence” as asserted by Robert Keohane and Joseph Nye in the 1970s is the realpolitik while envisaging the future of two states which are hailed for their democratic values. However, growing apprehensions in both India and USA about Chinese aggression has created the strategic convergence long sought by the US defence establishment eager to enlist India to balance China. While tracing back the long history of these two states holding genuine relations since 1998 when the USA put sanctions on India after the nuclear test. The circular gambit of diplomacy has altered to the strategic level from America’s “strategic Altruism” to “America First” in the wake of Indo-Pacific region supremacy which renders India the pseudo-hope to consolidate its economic, military, and trade prospects in the future. The successive Indo-US ties have been captured in the wake of the leadership of respective states from the Bush-Vajpayee era to Bush-Singh era to Obama-Singh era to Obama-Modi era to Trump-Modi era and notably, to the present Biden-Modi era which seeks to embrace the idea of “multi-polar Asia.”
Furthermore, the dynamicity of bilateral cooperation also gets reflected in their Indo-Pacific partnership. The Indo-Pacific represents both convergences and divergences between India and the US. As such, both will have to approach their differences carefully, specifically on the definition of the exact geographic limits and definitive strategic intentions of their respective Indo-Pacific strategy. Biden Administration has the privilege to work on an already nurtured relationship between the US and India in the Indo-Pacific. The two countries have moved towards issue-based partnerships, while still maintaining differences and their core interests intact. Given the dire circumstances, India’s stimulus efforts have been unimpressive. China’s aggressiveness has manifested itself across the Asia-Pacific in Beijing’s military buildup in the disputed South China Sea, its muzzling of Hong Kong’s autonomy, and its building of numerous ports and infrastructure projects around the world as part of the ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). India has witnessed China’s coercive behaviour on its border since the first Indo-Sino war of 1962 which further proliferates across its backyard in South Asia and the Indian Ocean region.
Nonetheless, India will continue to hold on to its strategic autonomy as it navigates an uncertain geopolitical landscape. One of the Biden administration’s most critical tasks will be to ensure that the current convergence with India on the China threat endures. As they mull whether to partner with the United States in standing up to Beijing, policymakers in New Delhi will be carefully watching to determine whether they can rely on Washington to do the same. If they sense Washington adopting a more conciliatory approach toward Beijing, they may revert to a hedging approach once again.
Covid-19 has knocked an economy that was starting to stall on the side of the highway right into the ditch. The road to recovery will be long and tortuous. The established structural framework between the two countries, such as the Indo-US Comprehensive Global Strategic Partnership; the 2+2 Ministerial Dialogue; India’s designated status as a Major Defence Partner of the US; strong bilateral trade in the defence sector undergirded by a mutual democratic spirit and strategic convergences in the Indo-Pacific region are likely to continue to provide momentum to the bilateral relationship.
The growing recalibration of the US role may impact the modus operandi that may avowedly seek to undo some of the policies of the preceding administration. India has maintained a deft political poise befitting its foreign policy orientation. It allows a politically comfortable bandwidth to work with either a Democrat or a Republican President in the US. This approach in India’s foreign policy orientation has been appreciated by recent administrations in the US, allowing for a broad range of issue-based cooperation while still keeping fundamental differences in core interests at bay. This mutual understanding is likely to continue to guide India-US relations under President Joe Biden. India should, however, watch out for any unintended consequences of the Biden administration’s undoing of Trump’s foreign policy legacy that may impact US-India relations, or indeed India’s regional or global interests.
The recent successful visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to the USA robust the strategic and mutual partnership in the long run where it contours joint development of Open Radio Access Networks, quantum computing, and artificial intelligence, innovations under the iCET initiative, the establishment of a semiconductor assembly and test facility in India, rare earth and minerals security, collaboration in space exploration, the resolution of trade issues and establishment of new consulates therefore, leading these two states ahead with technology diplomacy. Notably, mutual interdependence has to be fulfilled by consolidating bilateral relations where India cannot fulfil its potential without a closer partnership with the US, especially in the high-tech sector, and the US cannot hope to ensure a multi-polar Asia without a robust relationship with a strong and resilient India.
India, on the other hand, is the world’s most populous democracy and a credible voice of the Global South. Presumably, India’s posture toward global and regional trade has left India on the outside looking in as the regional trade landscape has transformed during Modi’s tenure. His government’s most troubling decision, out of fear of Chinese goods flooding the Indian market, was to withdraw from the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which was finalized in November 2020. India may never have been ready to be a part of the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) trade agreement, the highest-standard Asia-Pacific trade pact and the third largest in the world. And despite its prior interest, India has been on the outside of the most inclusive Asia-Pacific trade forum in the region – Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) bloc that aims to enhance regional economic integration through consensus. It is pertinent to observe the geopolitical context of ties, where a shared sense of rivalry with China between New Delhi and Washington will create opportunities for closer bilateral ties, the economic challenges facing the United States and India in the Covid-19 era will create counter currents.
Finally, a Biden administration will be faced with a problem that the Trump administration neglected entirely – India’s growing democratic deficit. Two of the original justifications for the United States to actively support India’s rise – its economic promise and its shared values – are therefore in some doubt.
The United States should invite India to participate in the summit and encourage it to take on a leadership role to “renew the spirit and shared purpose of the nations of the Free World.” India has much to offer the world. While differences exist on particular issues, the U.S.-India relationship is strong enough for the administration to navigate bilateral concerns while reasserting U.S. leadership in the defence of democracy and human rights on the world stage. However, this will not be possible until the United States and India address their significant differences in data governance. India has alarmed US technology and financial companies through some of its proposed rules on data localization and e-commerce as it is shaping its entire digital regulatory framework. Therefore, the Biden administration would be wise to institute a bilateral dialogue track focused on digital cooperation, to identify shared standards for cross-border data flows.
Some differences over the nature of the current global order, which resists genuine reform of multilateral institutions, need not come in the way of a deeper partnership. The fact is, neither India nor the US can take the other for granted. Both countries must make continuous efforts to improve ties, as in any relationship. Paradoxically, the continuity in India-US partnership of convenience unravelled in recent years, but only after China became the world’s second-largest economic and military power. Notably, the two had no shared values, and it hardly mattered to either side. The close partnership between a democratic India and a democratic US is far more sustainable in the long run.