Foreign Policy

Find out how to Increase the US’ Most Necessary Partnership

May 11, 2021, 10:15 AM

When U.S. President Joe Biden took office, he made clear he would prioritize domestic challenges, particularly the fallout of the coronavirus pandemic. Nevertheless, his administration has advanced at least some of its foreign-policy goals, including strengthening ties between the United States and India. As Washington and New Delhi look to deepen collaboration, Biden’s first 100 days present important lessons for how both countries can enhance their partnership—from positive momentum on climate change to the delayed U.S. response to India’s COVID-19 crisis.

The Biden administration has engaged in a flurry of activity around U.S.-India relations. Biden and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi have spoken on the phone on two occasions. U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and climate envoy John Kerry both visited India during the administration’s first 100 days while Indian External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar and Indian National Security Advisor Ajit Doval spoke with their U.S. counterparts multiple times. Some key administration appointments were already familiar to Indian officials, from Indo-Pacific coordinator Kurt Campbell to senior director for South Asia Sumona Guha aiding these early conversations.

The United States and India have also taken major steps to advance cooperation on shared goals, particularly countering China’s rise and addressing climate change. As part of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or Quad, both countries have expanded strategic cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region, along with Australia and Japan. On March 12, the leaders of all four countries virtually joined the first ever leader-level Quad summit. The summit offered a public commitment to collaborate on pressing issues, including COVID-19 vaccines, climate change, and emerging technologies.

Modi also participated in the Earth Day Leaders’ Climate Summit hosted by Biden, and he announced the creation of a “India-U.S. Climate and Clean Energy Agenda 2030 Partnership.” This partnership brings the climate crisis back to the forefront of U.S.-India relations, given it was not a priority for the Trump administration, and commits both countries to collaborate on their respective goals: reducing greenhouse gas emissions by at least 50 percent by 2030 for the United States and installing 450 gigawatts of renewable energy by 2030 for India.

However, long-standing differences still accompany the relationship. Despite ongoing negotiations since the Trump administration, a modest trade deal has eluded the partners, leaving obstacles in place like India’s price controls and the U.S. revocation of trade preferences to India. Instead, more differences on trade have cropped up in Biden’s first 100 days, such as the U.S. Trade Representative’s proposal of retaliatory tariffs following India’s decision to impose a Digital Services Tax (DST). The United States, which sees such taxes as a trade barrier that discriminates against U.S. technology firms, is likely to proceed with the tariffs after a public hearing on India’s DST on May 10.

More recently, tensions came to a head as India confronted its spiraling coronavirus crisis and the Biden administration was slow to offer statements of solidarity or assistance, in part due to its invocation of the Defense Production Act for key raw materials to produce COVID-19 vaccines. The United States has now responded robustly, diverting its own order for vaccine raw materials to India and sending more than $100 million worth of supplies—including medical oxygen, ventilators, pharmaceuticals, personal protective equipment, and other medical supplies—to India. In total, four U.S. relief flights have reached India, with two others expected in the coming weeks.

Biden’s early prioritization of India, the Quad, and the Indo-Pacific in his foreign policy underscores that certain strategic imperatives will persist under his administration. Although some commentators in India expressed concern over whether the United States might take a different approach to India under Biden, thereby slowing the pace of cooperation, the last 100 days suggest the strategic convergence between both countries—especially on China but also on defense, climate change, public health, science, and technology—is here to stay.

However, progress on strategic and security issues contrasts with slow trade and economic changes as well as the Biden administration’s initial fumbling of its response to India’s coronavirus crisis. Although a small chorus of Indian analysts pointed to delayed raw materials assistance as a sign that India should rethink its ties with the United States, the incident actually suggests Washington and New Delhi need to fine-tune their approach in areas where they must balance competing interests in pursuit of shared, long-term goals.

The recent U.S. experience regarding its delayed but robust response to India’s second wave underscores a need for Washington to proactively consider how New Delhi might interpret its decisions, given the long shadow of its history with India. Modi declared the United States and India had “overcome the hesitations of history” in his address to a joint session of the U.S. Congress in 2016. But in reality, for India, the task of overcoming some of these hesitations is ongoing.

Some U.S. missteps, such as its delay in providing coronavirus aid, may justifiably provoke frustration in India, but it should recognize they do not erase the strategic logic for the deepening partnership. They could instead be explained by bureaucratic issues, such as the absence of a U.S. ambassador in New Delhi as its case numbers began to spiral. Such fine-tuning could result in better collaboration on confronting at least three crucial challenges over the next few years.

The first challenge is in Afghanistan, where the Biden administration has begun the withdrawal of U.S. forces. All U.S. troops are slated to leave the country by Sept. 11. The United States and India share the long-term goal of peace in Afghanistan, but clear differences persist, most importantly on engagement with the Taliban and the possibility of a power-sharing agreement between the group and the Afghan government. To begin reconciling these differences, India should recognize the domestic pressure the Biden administration faces to end the war and its goal to shift its focus from counterinsurgency in the Middle East to strategic competition with China. The United States should consider India’s concerns about preserving peace and security in Afghanistan and its desire to limit Pakistan’s influence in the country.

Second, the United States and India must overcome the economic and trade front’s lack of progress. Although both Biden and Modi face domestic economic considerations that may hinder significant efforts to liberalize trade, failing to reach even a modest deal has made trade the weakest part of the U.S.-India relationship. It has also inhibited both countries from taking meaningful steps, either bilaterally or as part of coalitions, to engage the Indo-Pacific region on trade or economic issues. Both countries should redouble their commitment to quickly finalize the pending modest trade deal. They should also prioritize progress in the Indo-Pacific region in areas where the United States and India have strong convergences: green technology, digital innovation, and creating reliable supply chains on 5G equipment and critical minerals.

Finally, the United States and India may need to work the hardest on balancing competing priorities in favor of long-term interests regarding India’s acquisition of the Russian S-400 missile system and the prospect of U.S. sanctions. The Biden administration continues to take a tough stance toward Russia, but any sanctions against India, like those against Turkey, could set back their relationship by years. A sanctions waiver may contrast with some of Biden’s priorities to punish Russia for its interference in U.S elections, but it would preserve long-term U.S. interests vis-à-vis India, the Indo-Pacific, and strategic competition with China. Such a move would also signal that Washington is open to compromise and is at least somewhat cognizant of New Delhi’s long-standing desire to balance its global relationships.

Biden’s first 100 days clearly demonstrate the strategic logic underpinning the U.S.-India relationship is firmly intact. However, the partnership also faces significant challenges—as shown by Washington’s delayed response to India’s catastrophic second wave of the coronavirus. To prevent competing interests from undermining cooperation on shared goals in the coming years, both countries should learn from this early experience.

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