SOURCE: INDIA TODAY
The good thing about strong India-US ties is that both countries will try and work with whoever occupies the highest office in each country. Prime Minister Narendra Modi congratulated US President-elect Joe Biden the night (in India) elections were called. Biden has also said he will continue to strengthen India-US relations.
One of the reasons both countries enjoy strong relations, as Tanvi Madan, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington DC, and author of a recent book on how China shaped India-US relations during the Cold War, shared concerns about China. So, what happens to China under a Biden administration?
And how will that impact India? Edited excerpts from an interview that was conducted before Biden was declared President-elect:
India Today: What role does China play in India-US relations?
Tanvi Madan: Concerns about a rising China’s behaviour has been a key driver of US-India relations since the mid 2000s. One of the reasons India and the US have come together has to do with concerns about certain kinds of Chinese behaviour, not China per se. These concerns range from China unilaterally changing the status quo in the region, Chinese economic behaviour, China’s impact on the rules-based order in the region. In terms of a broader US-India relationship, that has been a key factor, though not the only factor.
IT: Why does India need the US to counter China in the dimensions you mentioned?
TM: It’s important to see it in a holistic perspective. About 30 years ago, the Chinese and Indian economies were about the same size. Today, China’s economy is almost five times that of India’s. That is reflected in the Chinese defense budget (For 2020-21, China’s defence budget is $178 billion, India’s is $66.9 billion). Though India has certain capabilities to deal with China on its own, there’s a recognition that it is going to be very hard for India to hold China accountable for its malign behaviour on its own. So, India needs geopolitical partners, economic partners, technology partners, and partners in global governance institutions. From a global perspective, the US sees India as crucial to maintaining a favourable balance of power in Asia. India sees the US as crucial to maintaining the rules-based order in the region. From a bilateral perspective, India sees the US as useful in building India’s capabilities — military, economic, technological intelligence. India also sees the US as a counterweight to China. Plus, there’s a belief in India that China takes India more seriously because the US takes India seriously. China might not have concerns about India as a challenge beyond a certain point. But, the fact that Beijing has been concerned about the US and India coming closer has given India leverage with the Chinese in a roundabout way at times.
IT: How would you characterise the Modi-Trump relationship?
TM: Trump has been a fundamentally different American president for South Block (South Block comprises the ministries of Defence and External Affairs) to deal with. It’s a reflection of the importance that India sees for the US that it adjusted its approach to strike a relation with the US president. This is true of American presidents, as well. Obama found a way to work with Manmohan Singh. Modi found a way to work with Obama and Trump. A Biden administration will find a way to work with the Indian prime minister as well. The India-US partnership is crucial for both countries.
IT: What will a Biden presidency mean for India?
TM: A Biden presidency would be a much more regular presidency for India and for Prime Minister Modi to tackle. Modi has met Biden before; Biden (who was then vice president) hosted a lunch for Modi at the State Department in 2014, the night after Obama hosted a private dinner for Modi.
Biden is also quite familiar with India. He was on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. As Vice President, he visited India in 2013. Biden is a traditionalist; allies and partners are important for him. Diplomacy is important for him. Personal diplomacy was much higher with Trump. With a Biden administration, it will be important, but not make or break.
IT: Biden and Kamala Harris have been critical about the government’s decision on NRC and CAA. We can expect the Biden administration to be tougher on India. Will the Indian government let criticisms slide?
TM: That’ll depend on the Indian government’s assessment of its priorities. The government has to answer this: what is most important to it? It has to weigh its domestic priorities against its foreign policy priorities. That’s a judgment call Delhi has to make. Plus, there’s a difference between an administration and Capitol Hill (the meeting place of the US Congress). People forget that Republicans are the ones who have criticized India more on religious freedom grounds. If you go back a few years ago, it was the Republican chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and of the House Foreign Affairs Committee who were criticizing India and holding hearings on religious freedom. It might not seem so right now, but Indian domestic steps can make it easier or harder for an administration to get things for India on Capitol Hill.
IT: Do the relations today remind you of any other time in history? And how much confidence does the US have in India today?
TM: In the late 50s and early 60s, the US and India shared similar views and concerns about China. There was an overlap in their approaches in dealing with the Chinese challenge. Also similar to the time, while there is convergence, there’s no consensus. After that period, the two sides started disagreeing about their approach to China even as they continued to see it as a threat. To some extent, they started getting disillusioned with the other country’s ability to confront China.
Which is why these equations are always relative. It’s not zero confidence or 100% confidence. This is a question of where you judge utility. It’s not about India’s role in countering China only; India is a big market, is a source of talent that gives India its heft on the world stage. Would the US like India to have more capability? Absolutely. But over the last fifteen years, we’ve seen Indian willingness to work with the US, for its own reasons. That overlap has led to greater institutionalisation of the relationship and greater cooperation. For the US, there is enough of a convergence that makes it worthwhile. Even if India doesn’t do anything for the US, a strong prosperous democracy in the country would give China something to think about. If India succeeds as a democracy, it can be a reflection that democracy and development aren’t mutually exclusive.