Strengthening U.S. relations with India will likely remain a focus for the Biden administration, experts told CNBC. Democrat Joe Biden is set to defeat incumbent Donald Trump in the race to become the next U.S. president, according to NBC News projections on Saturday. However, Trump has refused to concede and his campaign has mounted several legal challenges over how the ballots are being tabulated.
India is one of the few issues where there is a convergence between Biden and Trump and there will likely be continuity in American policy toward the South Asian country, according to Michael Kugelman, deputy director and senior associate for South Asia at the Wilson Center.
He said both men see the U.S.-India partnership as a “strategic imperative.” That shared view is “rooted in the bipartisan consensus in Washington that US-China rivalry is here to stay, and that New Delhi is a like-minded partner that shares the US goal of counterbalancing Beijing in the broader region,” Kugelman said by email.
Still, he pointed out in a tweet that Biden “won’t make foreign policy (much less South Asia) an initial priority.” Instead, his early focus will be on the home front, tackling issues such as Covid-19, the U.S. economy and reconciliation.
U.S.-India ties under Trump
Under the Trump administration, the India-U.S. relationship has had a mixed outcome.
On the trade front, tensions flared after the U.S. last year removed India from a long-running program that allowed the South Asian country to export many of its goods to the U.S. without tariffs. In response, India levied retaliatory tariffs on selected U.S. products.
But on the military front, U.S.-India ties have strengthened in light of rising tensions between India and China. Last month, the U.S. and India inked a major defense deal that Washington typically signs with close allies, that will allow New Delhi to access U.S. satellite data crucial for targeting missiles and other military assets.
President-elect Biden “has long championed strong US-India ties,” Harsh Pant, head of the strategic studies program at Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi, told CNBC.
The Indian government was “a bit hesitant” during the Obama administration about fostering closer ties with the U.S., according to Pant. Today, things are different: There is “great receptivity” in New Delhi that a strong U.S.-India relationship is important for the South Asian country’s “global ambitions as well as managing China breathing down its neck in the Himalayas,” Pant said.
Earlier this year, India and China were caught in a tense border face-off in the Himalayas that killed 20 Indian soldiers. Experts said at that time it was a turning point for the India-China relationship and that it could prompt New Delhi to build closer ties with countries like the U.S. while still retaining its strategic autonomy.
India is part of an informal strategic dialogue that also includes the U.S., Japan and Australia called the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue — commonly known as the Quad. The U.S. State Department describes the Quad’s role as “collective efforts to advance a free, open, and inclusive Indo-Pacific.”
“While Biden and his advisors have not specifically mentioned the Quad, it is likely they will continue strengthening that dialogue, while also collaborating with India in multilateral settings,” Akhil Bery, South Asia analyst at political risk consultancy Eurasia Group, told CNBC.
Biden has been a champion of the U.S.-India relationship for a long time, according to Bery.
As chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in the 2000s, he urged the administration of George W. Bush to drop sanctions on India and later helped shepherd through the civil nuclear agreement between the two countries. During the Obama administration, when Biden was vice president, India was also designated a major defense partner, allowing New Delhi to buy more advanced and sensitive technologies from the U.S., according to Bery.
While defense sales by the U.S. to India would likely continue under the new Biden administration, Bery said in a note last month that a potential point of friction could be New Delhi’s plans to buy a type of surface-to-air missile systems from Moscow.
Still, Bery said it is unlikely that the U.S. under Biden would directly insert itself into the ongoing border dispute between India and China.
Trade and immigration
The Biden administration will likely focus on the overall bilateral relationship with India rather than specifically on trade, according to Bery. That could mean the U.S. may not reinstate India’s trade privileges under a previous program which allowed the South Asian country to export many of its goods to the U.S. without tariffs.
On the immigration front, Bery said that Biden’s policy agenda includes commitment to reforming a visa program that would benefit India.
The Trump administration cracked down on the H-1B visa program — the skilled work visa that is used by immigrants, including Indians working in the U.S. tech sector. The move drew strong criticism from U.S. companies that rely on that visa to hire thousands of staff.
Biden will also be more keen on finding new areas of partnership with New Delhi, including issues like climate change, the Wilson Center’s Kugelman added.
“Furthermore, Biden’s more conventional and predictable style of leadership will mean that New Delhi would have a less mercurial partner in the White House than it’s had with Trump,” he said.
Still, experts predicted that a Biden administration will more likely raise human rights concerns with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government, particularly if there are more instances of sectarian violence in India like those seen earlier this year.
“Biden and Congressional Democrats would be more vocal than Trump in criticizing India over human rights,” Bery wrote last month. Key concerns include New Delhi’s crackdown on, and detention of, politicians in Kashmir, he said, as well as “divisive Hindu nationalist social policies, and anti-Muslim rhetoric.”
In one of his policy agenda documents, Biden expressed disappointment with New Delhi over its stance on Kashmir as well as a controversial citizenship law that grants citizenship to persecuted non-Muslim minorities who fled Muslim-majority Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan before 2015. Critics say the law excludes Muslim minorities fleeing persecution and goes against India’s secular principals.
“These measures are inconsistent with the country’s long tradition of secularism and with sustaining a multi-ethnic and multi-religious democracy,” according to the Biden campaign’s website.