There are strong indications that the defence association between Washington and New Delhi is getting stronger, thanks to the China factor. There are still niggles that exist in areas like bilateral trade, but the good news is that even those numbers are getting better.
A senior fellow from a leading think tank has voiced the view that US-India defence and security ties will record dramatic progress under the Biden administration.
Issues still need to be ironed out in the trade relationship between the two nations. According to Richard Rossow, Center for Strategic and International Studies, “Both countries will find difficult to find common ground on other issues around the world – like the rise of ISIS, or Russia’s military interventions in its neighbourhood, but when we talk about the rise of China there’s very little daylight between India and the US’s concerns.”
The Biden administration has set the pace and tone for its future engagements with the government of India, under the leadership of prime minister Narendra Modi. The most recent actions by Washington have been standing by India as it fights a devastating second wave of the pandemic with climbing infection rates and death tolls. The US has assisted India with huge volumes of aid and medical support. Coupled to this has been a decision by the White House to back calls by India, South Africa and other smaller countries, to table a request before the World Trade Organization (WTO) to temporarily waive some of the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS).
Rossow highlighted the fast tempo set in bilateral ties saying, “We have signed a number of defence agreements over the years and our militaries do a lot more exercises together. India buys more defence material from the US, so we are getting a lot of the mechanics right in the defence relationship. Across all the areas defence is the strongest and it’s come out of the gates strongest.
The first head of state Quad meeting called by Biden, after he assumed office in the White House; the decision by the US secretary of defence to choose India as his first stop in his first international visit are other strong indicators of this growing bond between the two countries. According to Rossow. “So there have been good things in the recent past and future focused on the China angle.”
Looking at the big picture, there has not been much policy deviation between the administrations of Biden and former president Donald Trump in their engagements with India. “This is one of the few relationships where you see a similar trajectory. There was dramatic progress in defence and security ties during the Trump administration but now we are seeing an acceleration,” said Rossow.
Despite reaching a common ground in defence the US and India still need to wade through their differences in the commercial sphere. Rossow suggested that “Some of the problems in the commercial relationship won’t go away – like massive trade deficits. Both leaders will be concerned about the flood of imports. There has been a lot of high-level engagement but it’s been around the Quad; Covid and defence - we don’t yet understand, or know, what the economic relationship will be like, or how the government will lead it, but the good news is that the numbers are good,” he said focusing on the high bilateral trade flows between the two countries recorded in recent months.
The Biden administration managed to score a few points on the issue of immigration. The US president doubled down on making good his election promise of easing immigration norms and relaxing rules governing the issue of Green Cards and H1B visas. The decision was to benefit millions of illegal immigrants in the US as well as hundreds of thousands of professionals across the world, including IT professionals from India. Last month, the US administration let the ban, on foreign workers visa, in particular H1B, simply lapse. The president did not issue a fresh proclamation for the ban on H-1B visas to continue after March 31.
Last week, India’s minister of foreign affairs Dr. S Jaishankar concluded a five-day visit to the US engaging with various levels of the administration including secretary of state Antony Blinken and secretary of defence Lloyd Austin. Discussions centred around the shipments of medical aid, including vaccines, but officials from both countries focused on regional security challenges including the Quad.
"The strategic group has filled the gap that has emerged in contemporary times where there are global or regional requirements. Quad fills a very important gap that has emerged in contemporary times, which cannot be filled by a single country, which cannot even be furthered by one bilateral relationship, and which is not being addressed at the multilateral level,” Jaishankar said.
According to reports, in an effort to strengthen Indo-Pacific cooperation through the Quad, the alliance had earlier discussed maritime security, connectivity, including technology issues, supply chain issues and vaccine production.
"So, there are a whole set of issues. The world has many, many concerns, you know, the many concerns have to be addressed by somebody, I mean, big countries can do a large portion of it, big relationships can add to it. But at the end of the day, most things work better if a group of countries sit together and say, okay, we all have similar positions and similar interests, and why don't we all sit and address those sets of issues? So that's how we see Quad - we see what I mean, is an expression of the convergence of interests of many countries, it is, in many ways, a reflection of the contemporary nature of the world," said Jaishankar.
The US and India also deliberated on their concerns over China's problematic activities, the coup in Myanmar and COVID-19 origin tracing.
"On China, we shared concerns about Southern China's problematic activities in the region, and it becomes increasingly like-minded on these issues. On the coup in Burma, the US and India have called for an end to the violence, urged the release of political prisoners, and called for the restoration of democracy," said Dean Thompson, the Acting Assistant Secretary, Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs in his briefing to reporters.
On Afghanistan, Jaishankar said, " You know, when you talk about the future of Afghanistan, India, is an important part of that conversation. Just as when we look at Afghanistan, clearly, you know, given the American presence over many years, it is something that we will be discussing."
The US troops will be withdrawing from Afghanistan by September 2021 and there is a strong belief that the country will implode in a civil war.
"The possible scenarios, once the US military draws down is obviously something which matters to us, it matters very much. It matters to the United States, and it has a larger regional presence. So, in one of these meetings, this subject came up. I don't think it was so much an issue of what is India's role, I mean, India has interest, India has influence, India has stakes, India has a history."
India had offered Afghanistan an assistance package of $1 billion. It is the 5th largest donor to Afghanistan, providing development reconstruction assistance of $2 billion since 2001. Also, it supports an Afghan-led, Afghan-owned and Afghan-controlled development of the war-torn nation.