Biden’s US and Emerging India : Converging Interests, Galloping Opportunities

Sub Title : The historicity of the Indo- US relationship and the likely future thrust of US foreign policy

Issues Details : Vol 14 Issue 5 Nov – Dec 2020

Author : Lt Gen Syed Ata Hasnain, PVSM, UYSM, AVSM, SM, VSM  (Retd)

Page No. : 34

Category : Geostrategy

: December 4, 2020

Indo-US relations have entered a crucial period of complexity with linkages and sub linkages of interests of the two nations. However, the convergence of interests far outweighs the differences. This article address the historicity of the Indo- US relationship, the likely future thrust of US foreign policy, the currency of threats to mutual interests and the future scope and speed in development of the relationship in the post Covid world

The tipping point in Indo-US relations seems to be approaching with the prospective assumption of charge of the US destiny by the Biden-Harris team of the Democratic party of the US. India is actually one of those nations on which there could be maximum convergence between the existing and the next US Administration leading to near continuity in policy. There were many apprehensions about the Biden-Harris team in Indian strategic circles, but these seem to have been put behind with more astute prognosis based on realistic analyses regarding transition from candidacy to actual power.

Most strategic commentators were surprised that President Trump decided to send the Secretary of State and the Defence Secretary for the 2+2 Dialogue with India, seven days before the crucial presidential election in the US which could see a change of administration. A physical dialogue as against a virtual one further reflects the seriousness of the US. Obviously these decisions come out of the seriousness attached to the situation in the Indo Pacific region where China has chosen to use the pandemic period to change course and coerce various countries with the purpose of creating for itself a position of advantage in the post pandemic world order. With the situation in Ladakh tense and no resolution in sight, the trigger to take the Indo-US relationship to a transformational one is already there. In fact, if there is one thing on which the Republicans and the Democrats would have convergence of policy at this juncture of the presidential race, it is to enhance the depth and quality of the relationship with India.

Historicity of the Relationship

Despite being in the opposite camp with the former Soviet Union or remaining altruistically nonaligned India’s relationship with the US was just cordial through the Cold War and never reached the threshold of closeness. India’s pursuit of non-alignment irked the US but also made it realize that it was not against its interests. President John F Kennedy’s one billion dollar aid for the Third Plan, measures towards India’s food security, plus the immediate military assistance post the 1962 Sino Indian border war helped shore up the relationship which fell again after the Indo Pak Conflict 1965 when a military embargo was placed. The USS Enterprise affair during the 1971 Indo Pak conflict made the US villainous in Indian eyes.

Post-Cold War there was a reluctant drag in spite of many changes in Indian foreign policy; yet the relationship could never really take off due to what may be termed adjustment issues. Perhaps the geostrategic advantages to the US provided by Pakistan overshadowed the potential provided by India as an economic and defence partner; Cold War mindsets were not easy to overcome. Some modicum of defence cooperation did begin through the Kickleighter proposals of 1991 but this was never ever near transformational in the making although Exercise Malabar between the US and Indian navies began as early as 1992. The arrival of a personality like Robin Rafael, US Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia in the first Clinton Administration (her husband Ambassador Rafael was killed in the air crash with President Zia of Pakistan), wasn’t helpful either. She unhesitatingly made it clear which side she was on with reference to the India-Pakistan equation.

The May 1998 Pokhran nuclear test of course put paid all efforts towards a stronger strategic relationship, at least for some time. Indian perception in the Nineties always harped on the US inability to ever appreciate India’s plight at being one of the first countries to be hit by transnational terror. Things started to change drastically with the presidency of George Bush Jr who besides looking at India through the prism of the rising threat of China also viewed it from the angle of the common terror threats.

The efforts towards the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) in 2002 had fructified but the technical agreements that were sought in the wake of it came under active negotiation only after Jul 2005 when the then Defence Minister Pranab Mukerjee visited Washington during the early part of the second Presidency of George Bush Jr. As the Indo-US Nuclear Deal also got proposed around this time India’s potential value as a strategic partner increased many notches. Mercifully, the ongoing progression although slow did not lose steam even with change of political guard in both countries. President Obama for much of his presidency tried to focus his attention on the then Asia Pacific region through his ‘Pivot to Asia’ or ‘Rebalancing’ strategy being fully aware of China’s ambitions in the Pacific and Indian Ocean regions.  However, he was hamstrung due to US commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan and the rise of ISIS in the last two years of his incumbency. China continued to focus on the South China Sea islands at this time and India’s strategic significance only enhanced because of the potential of its better control over the Indian Ocean. With the Covid 19 pandemic the Indo Pacific is witnessing the threat of the two ‘Cs’, Covid and China. China’s apparent opportunistic approach has spurred the move towards greater collective security especially after the standoff in Ladakh with India.

India and the US signed the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) in 2016 and the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) in 2018. LEMOA came during Barack Obama’s historic India visit in 2016 allowing the military of each country to make use of other’s bases: refuel, access supplies, spare parts, air bases, and ports with reimbursed costs. COMCASA was signed in September 2018, following the first 2+2 dialogue between the External Affairs and Defence Ministers of both countries. COMCASA allows the US to provide India with modern encrypted communications equipment and systems so that the US and Indian aircraft and ships can communicate through secure networks. That deal enabled equipment which compulsorily comes with classified state of the art communications, to be purchased by India without a hitch. It took the trust factor higher between the two countries.

The signing of long-awaited Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA), on 27 Oct 2020 at the third 2 + 2 Dialogue at New Delhi was the crowning glory providing India with geo-spatial information which will allow India to access the US advanced geospatial intelligence and both countries can exchange topographic data including maps, nautical and aeronautical charts, commercial and other unclassified imagery, geophysical, geomagnetic and gravity data. As per experts India’s limitations in satellite imagery perceived during the Jun 2020 standoff in Ladakh will be largely overcome.

Future Thrust of  US Foreign Policy

With the global order created by the US, no President can focus only internally to resolve the plethora of internal problems the US faces. It is the Covid hit financial situation that needs Biden’s attention but that too is linked to the international economy in no small way. His immediate attention will probably go towards restoration of image of the US in relation to its worldwide interests. Some of the areas where early decisions may be taken are in institutional support and leadership that has traditionally been an American convention. Rejoining WHO, UNESCO, Paris Climate Agreement and Global Compact for Migration could be on the priority list to accord America a leadership role again. There are at least six other agreements and protocols which will need to be reviewed for re-entry. Among them is the Iran Nuclear Deal of Jul 2015, also known as Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA. How this if renegotiated, if at all, will dictate Indian interests in the sanctions hit Chabahar port and the purchase of Iran’s oil and gas which is always favourable to Indian interests. The deal would depend upon how Biden intends to approach the relationship with European allies – Germany, France and the UK; a relationship partially affected but not irrecoverable.  It is also linked to the complexities of the Middle East. As long as the Middle East remains stable and is not subjected to one of those periods of turbulence brought on by ISIS and the civil war in Syria it will help the US to concentrate on Afghanistan from where a full scale withdrawal seems highly unlikely. The Taliban is playing a dual game of denying its hand in all the mayhem brought about through attacks and placing the burden of responsibility on ISIS which does have a fairly strong presence. As long as it helps in getting the US to leave in a hurry after 19 years the Taliban is quite happy. Uncertainty looms here too. Relations with Russia will need to be pursued as arms limitation talks continue and a crucial treaty comes up for renewal on 5 Feb 2021. Broader understanding with Russia about East Europe should also be on the cards. The last two most important fields for foreign policy will be China and the Indo Pacific; the latter will include the various considerations for thwarting China’s strategy to dominate the Indo Pacific. China may as yet not be fully prepared to confront the US and its allies but has upped its efforts to prepare the grounds for that by coercing some of the regional powers and that includes India. It is important for Biden not to get trapped in the Middle East, a strategy that the Russia-China combine would like to see the US drawn into.

Threats to Indo-US Interests

It is complex business to delve into the commonality of threats, but it is being simplified here. First it is important for India and the US to work in concert to thwart the threats of violent extremism which have no boundaries. Both have suffered immensely from this and a more robust consultative and executive mechanism towards exchange of intelligence and control of ideological radicalism must be found. Secondly instability in the Middle East will always be a source of common worry. The US wishes to have some control over an area which acts like a junction of civilizations and East-West communications. Energy is no longer a priority, but it is for many of the US allies and others which ensures the stability of the international economy. India is one of those countries. It also has a large diaspora of expatriate workers who are the first ones threatened by any instability.

Afghanistan is another area where India and the US have worked jointly; Indian soft power support has a high footprint there. Absence of US presence will obviously make it extremely challenging for India to retain its presence; Pakistani influence will make that extremely difficult. There is relative uncertainty about the future presence of the US in Afghanistan and that does not augur very well for India either.

The biggest common threat to Indo-US strategic interests comes from China which perceives both India and US as potential obstacles in the path of its growth to a position of a superpower. The fifth plenum of 19th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party has reportedly advanced the date for achievement of full developed status by China to 2035. With Xi Jinping’s ambitions and presidency for life, the thrust is going to be an ambitious one in which parity with the US if not strategic dominance would be its intent. The US has reliable partners in Japan, the other ‘Five Eyes’ powers, South Korea and some of the ASEAN states in the Pacific region but none in the Indian Ocean region. India’s role is in the Indian Ocean to enable greater Indo US control. Ideally China would like to see disruption of equations between India, Japan and the US, the three principal states which have the economic-strategic capability to delay its eventual rise.

In sum, when related to threats it may not be wrong to assume that the nations that China considers potential adversaries have little doubt that China will eventually rise to status of a fully developed nation and superpower. The question is whether that rise will be peaceful or not, and whether it will be at the cost of these powers and their territories. China is perceived as a hegemon by Asian nations. This is what brings the US to balance that status. China’s propensity not to play by rules, non-adherence to international legal issues such as freedom of navigation and a general attitude of bullying weaker nations for obtaining strategic advantage will always create the scope and conditions for US led alliances.

Development of the Indo-US Strategic Partnership and Future Strategy

In the last five years India made ardent efforts to follow a path towards non-confrontation and cooperation with China on the grounds of mutual benefit to the two neighbours. Simultaneously it followed a policy of multilateralism with respect to the big powers. It displayed an enthusiasm for a strategic partnership with the US without going overboard preferring to play it relatively slowly, allowing opportunities to drive the relationship. With Russia, India ensured that it took measures to display its desire to retain momentum in the existing strong strategic relationship. The S-400 Air Defence systems deal worth 5 billion US$ was also partially done for the sake of maintaining a balance when indicators of Russia moving closer to Pakistan became evident.

The chain of events in the subcontinent related to strategic affairs in the last few years which included the surgical strikes in 2016, Doklam 2017, Balakot air strike 2019 and the constitutional decisions on J&K on 5 Aug 2019, appeared to broadly have the support of the majority of the world. These contributed to India’s growing strategic confidence. It apparently alarmed both China and Pakistan of the possibility of India undertaking measures to gain control of PoK and Gilgit-Baltistan (GB). Sino Indian relations deteriorated in 2020 and brought about a situation wherein mutual interests of India and the US can be promoted through a stronger strategic partnership. Such a partnership was already in the making for the last couple of years and had received an impetus after the naming of the Asia Pacific region as the Indo Pacific, the increasing US intent of enhanced power projection both diplomatically and physically in the region and the progression of 2+2 Strategic Dialogue which began in New Delhi in 2018. The progress may have been slow in the degree of desire to come close once India entered into the system of informal summits with China after the Doklam standoff in 2017. That has changed with China’s unilateral attempts in Apr-May 2020 to change the status of the LAC in Ladakh and ratchet up coercive pressure through the last six months.

The worsening of Sino US relations, almost in sync with the movement of events in the Indian subcontinent and the various signals emerging from China on the  ambitious timelines of its status till 2049, have all added weight to the mutual necessity of a stronger Indo-US strategic partnership. That explains the transformational nature of exchanges at the latest 2+2 Strategic Dialogue. There is not much that Joe Biden can do to restrict China’s ambitious moves except to ensure that all partnerships in the Indo Pacific move at the pace of events. The Quad is one area of achievement, but it is early yet to call it a NATO of the East. What the Biden Administration must attempt to do is an early review of the status with core partners in the Indo Pacific and outline a trajectory for moving the relationships to a higher plane with added trust and willingness to back one another both politically and strategically. The US, Japan, Vietnam, Australia, South Korea and India must be seen to be in sync as far as their strategic interests are concerned.

US and India need to jointly consider the value of joining the Regional Comprehensive Economic Program (RCEP) and negotiate further the conditions for that. It is currently viewed as a vehicle for China’s economic dominance over the region despite the presence of such economic heavyweights as Japan and South Korea. Leaving China free in the economic domain with the very same nations who are urged by the US to strategically resist China gives an unconvincing argument to the US contention.

Indo-US relations have to cater to the significant commonality of interests relating to Pakistan. While the US will have its strategic compulsions to work with Pakistan on Afghanistan, Indian necessity will be of ensuring no further arming of Pakistan, deterring it to undertake terror related proxy war in J&K and rest of India, sanctioning the deep state of Pakistan and any other measures to prevent that country from furthering its strategy of thousand cuts against India. The US will need to remain mindful that currently this is India’s short term priority domain of security. The US must work towards preventing Pakistan from undertaking actions against India which will cross the rubicon and force an Indian retaliation with the concurrent danger of a nuclear escalation.


Future Indo-US relations are likely to see history in the making. Apprehensions of the Biden-Harris Administration bringing down the significance of the emerging strategic partnership bear no truth as the nature of threats and the demand for strategic cooperation clearly expect continuity. It is imperative that no moments must be lost in the furtherance of the relationship and the transition period is a time when Indian influence through diaspora, lobbyists and means must ensure no breaks. A surge in the relationship will only add weight to the Democratic Party’s old commitment of ‘Rebalancing’ and ‘Pivot to Asia’, both strategies the time for which has clearly arrived.