Home / News / India /  ‘The Biden presidency will not materially affect US-India ties’

Joseph Biden takes oath as the 46th President of the US this week after an unprecedented election. What kind of ties is the Biden administration likely to cultivate with India? Former foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal says the Biden presidency will not “materially" affect ties with India. That Biden has said that his administration will go slow on trade deals with countries is seen by Sibal as a positive. Elements of India’s Atmanirbhar (self-reliance) policy have been a cause for concern but these doubts could be removed with greater clarity from India on how it intends to proceed with this programme, he says. Edited excerpts:

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How do you see the India-US relationship shaping up under Biden?

The Biden presidency will not materially affect the momentum of India-US ties. Concerns expressed in some circles about Democrats raising human rights issues can be taken in our stride as the US is itself answerable on these issues. In the larger global scenario, particularly in the Indo-Pacific region, US concerns about countering China’s power which directly affects America’s global role will require closer strategic understandings with India. India is central to a future power equilibrium in Asia as the only Asian country that can independently counter China. A relatively weakened US would require more burden- sharing, and India can fulfil that role unlike others who as allies are entirely dependent on the US for security.

President Donald Trump’s Indo-Pacific policy was recently de-classified and there are analysts holding the view that this was done because the incoming Biden administration would maybe jettison the policy and go back to the Asia-Pacific nomenclature (instead of Indo-Pacific). What’s your view on this?

There is no doubt that the Trump administration has declassified certain documents and taken some other steps on the geopolitical front, relating to both China and India, that will make it difficult for the Biden administration to reverse.

More so as the outline of the US thinking is cogent and reflects geopolitical realities that any US administration will have to confront, especially in dealing with an aggressively rising China.

On the margins, some change in tone and style can occur but fundamentally the Biden administration will not be able to change the course of future US policy towards the Indo-Pacific.

Biden’s pick for climate change envoy, John Kerry, has reportedly said that bringing China on-board is critical to achieving emission cut targets. How will that impact on US-China relations? Do you see a possibility of cooperation and hence a lessening of tensions?

The Biden administration has already said that on climate change, human rights and trade, they will engage China. This is an objective reading of the situation as China cannot be ignored on these issues internationally or bilaterally. China cannot be wished away from the international scene.

Far more important would be areas from which China will be denied earlier cooperative access - US technology, scientific research, /academia, investment in sensitive US companies. This will impinge on China’s technological ambitions, in particular with regard to access to semi-conductors, a critical area for China’s goal to dominate the digital world in the years ahead. Taiwan will become a source of continuing tensions. Contradictions between the US and China are becoming fundamental, especially under Xi Jinping.

The polarization in the US is very sharp. Will the Biden administration become distracted by domestic issues, and give China a free run in its neighbourhood in the process?

I don’t think that concern is valid. It is true that the existing polarization in the US will continue. The Democrats will continue targeting the Trump supporters to ward off pressure from Leftist elements in the Democratic Party and preserve unity in the Democratic camp.

But the Pentagon, the Central Intelligence Agency and other institutions involved in foreign policy making, will be able to separate domestic political party concerns from core foreign policy issues.

The US, despite being distracted at home, has enormous military capacities to advance its foreign policy goals. That the Democrats now have majority in the House (of Representatives) and the Senate will enable them to successfully pursue their interests globally where they are most critical. The Biden Administration has already announced that it will focus on its East Asian allies, which means China will be countered in the western Pacific.

When you come to issues like trade, which was a signature theme with the Trump administration, will India be under the same kind of pressure?

There will be a change from the Trump administration which scoffed at multilateralism. The Biden administration will be more multilateralist, though as in the past, the US will be unilateralist when it suits its interests.

Biden’s agenda of re-entering the Paris Climate Change Agreement, the World Health Organisation, UNESCO and even the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or the 2015 Iran nuclear deal) shows that he will be more traditional in pursuing US policy goals, including, in relation to China, developing an understanding with Europe on how to handle China economically.

Trump was not wrong in his central objective of undoing the damage done to large parts of the US economy because of globalization but his single-minded focus on trade deficits and transactional trade deals was becoming globally disruptive.

Biden will pursue the objective of restoring America’s economy but in a less openly confrontational and disruptive manner. He has already said he will go slow on any new trade deals.

US ambassador Kenneth Juster in a recent speech said the Atmanirbhar Bharat programme may not be compatible with its goal to integrate with global supply chains. What is your view on this?

Trade issues will continue to bedevil India-US relations as they have always done. No matter which administration has been in power in the US, the agenda for so called reform and liberalization as seen by US lobbies and by Indian decision makers has differed.

There are some concerns about the scope of the Atmanirbhar Bharat strategy because some critics have raised fears that it could be a return to the past licence raj of some sorts. The other concern is whether the desire for self reliance which is acceptable in the broader sense for an economically rising power like India may in implementation at various levels by the bureaucracy exceed intentions as the exact scope and definition of this strategy are not clear. This may result in creating additional difficulties in the areas of trade and investment. The concerns expressed are about the lack of clarity and about how things will shape and not the intent.

What about the changes to the H-1B visa system that the US is planning to make?

On this Biden has already said that the US will be more open. In part this would be because the California-based big American technology companies which have been very supportive of Biden would back more flexible policies on H1B visas.

India would be under less pressure in this area than under the Trump administration which had a narrower view of this area of cooperation with India.

Will the US under Biden use defence tech transfers conditional? On the state of human rights, maybe?

No, because arms sales have been a very vital element of US foreign policy. The US could not use this leverage with India for a long time in the absence of a defence relationship between the two countries. Now that they have become a privileged partner of sorts, the US and its defence companies are not going to give up opportunities in this domain through direct arms sales or joint ventures, where necessary enter into joint ventures as dictated by our procurement policies. The US has the intention of replacing Russia as India’s biggest defence partner. Given the Biden administration’s anti-Russia orientation they will not dilute their current policy of expanding defence ties with India, especially as all the foundational agreements are now in place. Besides, it would be in the interest of the US in the larger strategic perspective to build India militarily in order to counter China’s aggressive rise. On human rights, one can expect the Biden administration to be a little more uncomfortable for India. We are used to criticism by the US political establishment about some aspects of the human rights situation in India. In recent years the anti-Modi domestic lobbies had played up these issues with strong echoes in western liberal circles. It’s quite likely that some of these issues may figure in our bilateral discussions but given the recent developments in the US with regard to democracy and race relations, America has become vulnerable. One presumes that the Biden administration would realize that it will be counterproductive to lecture India because our reaction against American hypocrisy would be strong.

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