For the US, the competing priorities on India
Relations between the United States (US) and India, which were in the doldrums during much of the Cold War era, started to take a more cordial turn from the waning days of the second Bill Clinton administration. However, they were placed on a genuinely secure footing following the US-India civilian nuclear agreement of 2008. Since then, there has been a remarkable bipartisan consensus about the significance of India in the US foreign policy calculus.
Even Donald Trump, who used strong-arm tactics in trade negotiations, curbed H-1B visas and saw the relationship in transactional terms did not undermine it. Though otherwise mercurial, he nevertheless allowed his administration to adopt a pro-India stance when the Sino-Indian border troubles flared up in Ladakh last year.
The Joe Biden administration assumed office with the promise of moving away from the nativist outlook of the Trump administration. Earlier, during the presidential campaign, Biden made it clear that his administration would return to multilateralism, promote democracy and global human rights and stand up to the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and Russia’s attempts to support and promote authoritarian regimes across the world.
Earlier this month, the White House released a document, the Interim National Security Strategic Guidance, which provides a working blueprint for the administration’s new national security strategy. To no one’s surprise, it affirms the administration’s return to multilateralism, commits it to strengthening long-standing alliances and declares its interest in promoting democracy and protecting human rights. There is little question that the administration will attempt to implement these goals.
However, it has already recognised that certain trade-offs are inevitable. To that end, last month, it released an unclassified version of a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) analysis of the killing of the Saudi dissident and The Washington Post columnist, Jamal Khashoggi. (The Trump administration, in an effort to avoid offending the Saudi monarchy, and with its lack of interest in promoting human rights abroad, kept it under wraps.) The report left little or no doubt that the murder could not have taken place without the imprimatur of the Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, the de facto ruler of the desert kingdom. In its wake, the US Department of the Treasury placed a series of sanctions on a number of high-level officials in Saudi Arabia.
However, the administration chose not to impose any costs on the Crown Prince. Political commentators argued that the administration decided not to publicly upbraid him for fear of unsettling this long-standing relationship. Clearly, as has happened many a time in previous administrations, this one too felt the need to strike a delicate balance between ideals and self-interest.
Will the administration feel compelled to strike a similar balance in dealing with India? On the one hand, the report has, albeit quite briefly, alluded to the significance of India in promoting cooperation and advancing its strategic interests in the Indo-Pacific. Yet, in several places, this document highlighted US concerns about promoting democracy and human rights on a global basis. During the campaign, both Biden and vice-president Kamala Harris expressed their unease about the state of human rights in India in general, and in Kashmir in particular. After assuming office, the administration has raised these concerns again. The issue is one that the administration will not abandon. This is even more likely as there are a number of key Congressional Democrats who are prone to holding it accountable on this particular score.
However, it is also evident that the Biden administration continues to attach considerable strategic significance to the Indo-US relationship. This is reasonable to infer given that Secretary of Defense, Lloyd Austin, is making his initial trip to India this week. His visit signals a continuity in policy. In the meanwhile, last week, at the virtual Quad conference, the members agreed to boost vaccine distribution and coordinate their policies to counter China’s assertiveness.
Given these two competing imperatives, how is the Biden administration likely to tackle them? Faced with the growing aggressiveness of China, India remains a prospective linchpin in American regional strategy. Consequently, the US will elicit India’s cooperation in guaranteeing security and stability in the region. Yet it cannot allow its stated commitment to protecting human rights and boosting democracy to ring hollow. How then is it likely to weigh in on these demands which are likely to be at odds?
The strategic relationship, after years of vicissitudes, is now stable. More to the point, New Delhi, after decades of vacillation, sees considerable value in it despite some lingering reservations. Accordingly, it cannot distance itself from the US. Despite this strategic convergence, the new dispensation in Washington, it will not, as occasion demands, shy away from quietly, but firmly, reminding New Delhi to adhere to its democratic traditions. Negotiating between these two shoals may prove to be taxing for both Washington and New Delhi.
Sumit Ganguly is a distinguished professor of political science and holds the Rabindranath Tagore Chair in Indian Cultures and Civilizations at Indiana University
The views expressed are personal