Home / Opinion / Columns /  Two events that will display America's new India approach

In the end, it was like a walk in the park. Pictures of the Taliban’s rapid and uncontested power-grab in Afghanistan and the attendant chaos left by the US’s sudden withdrawal of troops from Kabul are likely to dominate headlines, podcasts and strategy conversations for a while. The Taliban’s official phrases will be parsed, body language interpreted and promises of good behaviour treated with suspicion. There will be a lot of deliberation on what a new-old Taliban regime means for India and the broader neighbourhood, including parts of Africa. India’s security calculus will unquestionably need some swift but careful reconfiguring. Interestingly, some of the key determinants are likely to emerge from the US’s domestic political temperature and two multilateral meetings over the next four months.

On the surface, it does seem that India starts off on a back foot in this new equation. Taliban’s resumption of power, with Pakistan and China’s explicit support, leaves India strategically encircled on the north, west and east. This is happening even as India’s foreign relations over the past few years, especially under the Bharatiya Janata Party’s leadership, have leant heavily towards the West, particularly Washington. This has meant a realignment of relations with long-time ally Russia, or civilizational partner Iran, which could have acted as countervailing forces.

The India-US partnership will be tested in these changed circumstances, especially amid apprehensions of terror and violence finding renewed sponsorship in the neighbourhood. But the US’s shambolic retreat from Afghanistan holds out some clues: It is clear that a version, or residue, of “America First" is still playing out in US foreign policy. This is natural, given President Joe Biden’s less-than-comprehensive victory margin: while Biden swept the US electoral college seats (306 against Trump’s 232), he was able to get only 51.3% of the popular vote against Donald Trump’s 46.8%. Plus—and this is conjecture—the need to pass $4-trillion spending bills could have also forced Biden’s hands. Given these domestic compulsions, the degree of elasticity available in the US partnership with India is still unknown; in fact, the US vision of this partnership will attain a large measure of clarity at two forthcoming multilateral events.

The first is upcoming CoP-26 in Glasgow, scheduled to kick off on 31 October. Biden brought the US back into the global climate change tent after Trump had walked out of the Paris Agreement. A sharp point of departure with India here might be whether developed nations, led by the US, are willing to accept the developing bloc’s principle of common but differentiated responsibilities.

Over the past few years, Western nations have sacrificed this accepted multilateral policy at the altar of net zero. In addition, under the Paris Agreement, rich countries had promised to provide $100 billion every year to developing and poor nations, primarily to help them cope with the effects of climate change and gradually populate their polluting factories with greener equipment; sadly, this promise has remained mostly on paper. India and the US have traditionally been on diametrically opposite sides of this debate; it has to be seen how Biden and his special envoy for climate, John Kerry, approach the needs of developing countries, especially island nations.

The second signal will come during the World Trade Organization’s (WTO) ministerial scheduled this December. Battle lines have already been drawn between the rich and poor. Agricultural trade remains a bone of contention. Rich nations have consistently browbeaten developing countries at every trade negotiation and tried to restrict their farm subsidies while refusing to touch their own, citing an asymmetry in the 1995 agriculture agreement which they introduced themselves during the morphing of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade into the WTO. Rich nations have also been trying to shift the goal-post by questioning special and differential treatment provisions for developing countries, or by adding new issues to the agenda, such as e-commerce and investment facilitation.

The pandemic has sharpened another contentious issue that unites India and other poor nations: public stockholding for food security, a permanent solution to which has been pending since 2013. Poor nations have some extra headroom on how much they can spend on procuring crops for food security (the minimum support price system in India, which West considers trade-distorting), but that flawed formula is based on average crop prices of 1986-1988. Rich countries, led by a vocal and aggressive US, have in the past filibustered every move to change this base, leave alone considering a change in the stockholding formula itself.

To be fair, Biden’s hands are somewhat tied. One, he will need to reverse the negative reaction at home to his country’s chaotic exit from Afghanistan. Two, he has to ensure that a sizeable domestic constituency votes Democratic in America’s mid-term elections, which are a year away.

Given these constraints, Washington could settle for some kind of hybrid support to India, perhaps a combination of partnership and antagonism: friends at the Quad but adversaries at the WTO or CoP-26. What form that might eventually take is anybody’s guess, but, going by the past record, it is bound to be significantly transactional in nature.

Rajrishi Singhal is a policy consultant, journalist and author. His Twitter handle is @rajrishisinghal.

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