The historic opportunity for India and the US to deepen their strategic alliance and build a stable balance of power in the wider Indo-Pacific region got yet another boost this week with the first phone call between US President Joe Biden and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi since the former was sworn in.
The two leaders agreed to continuing close cooperation to promote a free and open Indo-Pacific, including support for freedom of navigation, territorial integrity and a stronger regional architecture through the Quad, the White House said.
That statement, against the backdrop of the current global geopolitical flux and the coronavirus pandemic, assumes critical significance and offers both PM Modi and Biden the opportunity to forge stronger strategic relations amid a slew of important foreign policy challenges for the US.
Biden and Modi committed that the US and India will work closely together to win the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic, renew their partnership on climate change, rebuild the global economy in a way that benefits the people of both countries, and stand together against the scourge of global terrorism.
“The President underscored his desire to defend democratic institutions and norms around the world and noted that a shared commitment to democratic values is the bedrock for the US-India relationship,” the White House said, adding the two leaders resolved that the rule of law and the democratic process must be upheld in Myanmar.
PM Modi is the first foreign leader with whom Biden has spoken with beyond neighbours and key NATO allies, reflecting the significance his administration attaches to ties with India.
Continuing a process set in motion by President Bill Clinton during the 1990s and accelerated by every succeeding administration, US-India relations reached a new high during Donald Trump’s presidency – thanks to the personal bonhomie between him and PM Modi.
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The Trump administration’s now-declassified “US Strategic Framework for the Indo-Pacific” gives India pride of place in American strategy. “A strong India, in cooperation with like-minded countries, would act as a counterbalance to China,” it states. The framework underlines the US objective to “accelerate India’s rise and capacity to serve as a net provider of security” in the Indo-Pacific and as America’s major defence partner.
Not surprisingly, there is strong bipartisan support in both Washington and New Delhi for a closer partnership under Biden.
The reference in the call to promote a free and open Indo-Pacific, including support for freedom of navigation, territorial integrity, is a clear reference to China’s aggressive actions in the region.
“India’s alarm over Chinese aggression is widely shared in Washington, now more than ever, as the Trump administration began explicitly labelling China as a “revisionist power,” “strategic competitor” and principal adversary,” said Brahma Chellaney, a geo-strategist and author. “Before this paradigm shift, successive US presidents since the 1970s aided the rise of their country’s most formidable competitor, believing that an increasingly prosperous China would become a ‘responsible stakeholder’.
That blunder will continue to haunt not only the US but also its allies and partners,” he said.
The depth of strategic collaboration between the world’s largest and oldest democracies will, however, ultimately be shaped by the new administration’s China policy – and Biden has yet to clearly enunciate his approach toward Beijing or his overall Asia policy.
As for now, Biden and Modi agreed to stay in close touch on a range of global challenges and look forward to what the United States and India will achieve together for their people and for their nations, the White House said.