Indo US relations have come a long way from the cold war era. The rise of China has been alarming for both the countries and there is increasing security cooperation between the two. While India tries to balance China by partnering with the USA, America sees India as a key ally in pushing back against China. The relationship with the USA matters to India more than any other bilateral engagement by all means – economically, strategically and socially. Although there is no doubt that the relationship is only set to grow in the future, in a democratic country, the elections are the key events and cannot be ignored.
How it matters
To take examples from history, As Amitabh Mattoo points out in his recent article on WHY US ELECTIONS 2020 MATTERS TO INDIA, during the presidency of John F Kennedy, the president was eager to assist India to counter the Chinese. India received unprecedented economic assistance and in 1962 war, almost a carte blanche in terms of military aid. Had Kennedy not been assassinated in 1963 and Nehru not died in 1964, the history of Indo-US relations may have taken a different course. And the same can be said about the Bush administration. According to Professor Matto, it was the personal weight that Bush put into the nuclear deal that ensured the success of the Indo US nuclear deal.
On the other hand, the worst phase of Indo US relations was during the tenure of Richard Nixon and early years of Bill Clinton. Nixon had a clear pro Pakistan tilt in the 1970s. And during the 1990s – Clinton years, there was huge pressure on India to rollback its nuclear programme and settle the Kashmir issue.
Thus, while the foreign policy is shaped by institutions and long term considerations, the persons occupying important posts also influence the outcome and their contribution cannot be underestimated.
What Trump has Done
The world has witnessed major changes in the USA’s approach to global problems since the ascendance of Trump in 2017. The USA has adopted ‘America First’ policy, a backlash against international institutions, rollback from the Climate Agreement and a trade war against China.
US Iran relations have seen a new nadir during Trump tenure. The president has rolled out his country from the Iran nuclear deal, has criticized Iran in uncertain terms and incited even military provocations. Iran remains important to India to ensure its energy security, a cheaper and reliable source of oil, to ensure connectivity with Central Asia, and to counter Chinese influence in the Arabian sea.
Regarding Pakistan, apart from a route to Afghanistan, it really has nothing to offer to the USA, and especially to Trump who is more interested in economics. Except for the point where Trump offered himself to mediate on Kashmir issue, US policy on Pakistan has not been of much concern to India in the last 4 years.
Russia is a highly politicized issue in the USA. Though Trump tried to reconcile the relationship in his early tenure, the US has taken a tough stand against Russian military supplies. USA has still not granted waiver for S-400 purchase by India from Russia.
While the cooperation on security issues is clearly visible, on trade policies, there is clear division between India and the United States. Trump calls India a ‘tariff king’. India has not remained immune to the consequences of America first policy. India has been removed from the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) and there are also contestations about H1B and H4 visas.
There are also backlashes against globalization in Trump 1.0. The USA has withdrawn from the Paris Climate Agreement, UNESCO, and UNHRC. Though it has not directly affected India, it goes against the principle of ‘rule based world order’ which India seeks and advocates.
What the ‘Change’ might do to India?
If Biden wins the 2020 presidential contest, on many fronts, the picture is not likely to change. The America First has not been just a invention of Trump but was long in the making. China is a non-democratic country and a powerful China is seen as a threat by both Republicans and Democrats alike. Iran developing nuclear capability cannot be acceptable to the USA with valuable allies in the Arab world. The feelings for Russia run deep in the minds of US citizens as well and each government has only tried to take its advantage. Though Pakistan is likely to remain a low priority in US foreing policy the stance of Kamala Harris, a vice presidential candidate of Democratic party, on the issue of Kashmir may create an uncomfortable situation for India.
With US unemployment at a high 8.4% and the country experiencing the toughest economic condition since the Great Depression, there may be little political room for either of the two contenders to deviate from the US’s existing and increasingly nativist trade policies.
The one issue, where we may witness the change is, the USA’s stand on Iran. It was Democrat president Obama, who successfully negotiated the Iran Nuclear Deal (JCPOA) and provided some level of scrutiny for Iran’s nuclear projects. The withdrawal from the deal has only strengthened the Iranian resolve to develop nuclear weapons and Biden may renegotiate the deal. And an improved US Iran relations would certainly help India.
In any case, the outcome of the election is not an existential issue for India. Ideally speaking, India would like to see a US administration taking a tougher position on China and Pakistan, while also giving India a pass on their relationships with Russia and Iran. And with any government in power, India will have to bargain for what it seeks.