The new US administration will see eye-to-eye with New Delhi on Beijing and geopolitics but India must not turn inward

The United States’ Strategic Framework for the Indo-Pacific, an extant policy document declassified and published last week by the outgoing Donald Trump administration, is mostly music to New Delhi’s ears. Assuming that “a strong India, in cooperation with like-minded countries, would act as a counterbalance [to] China", one of Washington’s objectives is to “accelerate India’s rise and capacity to serve as a net provider of security and Major Defence Partner" and “solidify an enduring strategic partnership with India underpinned by a strong Indian military able to effectively collaborate with the United States and our partners in the region to address shared interests." Becoming India’s preferred partner on security issues is one of the desired ends of the United States’ policy. Much of this has already been stated by US officials over the past two decades. But mere talk is cheap. The cold hard print of an apex policy document ought to make Washington’s intentions a lot more credible in New Delhi.

Yet, the fact that outgoing US officials saw a need to publish their strategy document should concern us in India. It suggests that the US establishment is worried that the incoming Joe Biden administration might go soft on China and take a more conciliatory line with Beijing. Putting the declassified document out serves to measure how far President Biden moves away from the line drawn during the Trump administration, and even to some extent, tie the hands of his administration. Policy departures will now be explicitly visible and thus amenable to closer scrutiny by the US Congress and strategic circles in Washington.

Unlike in the early Barack Obama years, there is now a general bipartisan consensus in the United States—except perhaps in some parts of Wall Street—that China is a strategic adversary. This is unlikely to change merely because a different crew is in the White House. On politics, defence and economics, there are deep differences between what even the most liberal internationalists among the Democrats desire and what Xi Jinping’s China can concede. Incoming foreign policy officials are likely to agree with a lot of what the declassified Indo-Pacific strategy document says. Biden’s personnel decisions bear this out. The purported appointment of Kurt Campbell as the “Indo-Pacific coordinator" suggests that the new administration is throwing greater experience and professionalism in managing the China challenge. In an essay published in Foreign Affairs magazine in 2019, Campbell and Jake Sullivan, the incoming national security advisor, describe Beijing as a “strategic competitor" and advocate a realist agenda of co-existence with China instead of trying to change it.

Set against this is China’s utility in the Biden administration’s immediate need for space to sort out domestic crises and the longer-term imperative of new international arrangements to deal with climate change and nuclear security. Beijing will almost certainly make overtures on both these fronts, seeing them as thin ends of the wedge in its objective to get the US to stand down on the several fronts that the Trump administration opened. At the same time, there is also Beijing’s traditional behaviour of welcoming a new foreign leader by creating some sort of a military or diplomatic crisis, which ends up highlighting the adversarial nature of the relationship. Overall, we should expect some easing of tensions between the two countries this year, starting with a change in language, style and ambience. The underlying divergences, though, won’t go away.

Also, Beijing has long cultivated the financial bigwigs of Wall Street as a go-between with Washington. The trade deal signed in January 2020 allows US financial companies greater access to the Chinese market, and almost certainly favours Wall Street firms that are in Beijing’s good books. Last July, 40 trade groups representing a broad range of industries openly called for Beijing to honour the commitments it made under the deal. Wall Street was conspicuously absent from the list of complainants. It is not just that the financial economy had diverged from the real economy—its politics has as well. Although Biden administration officials, including Jake Sullivan, have rejected dovetailing US policy with Wall Street preferences, the enduring reality of politics is that money does make a difference.

Where are India’s interests in all this? A balanced relationship with the United States involves strategic, economic and value convergences. The Biden administration will continue to see eye-to-eye with the Narendra Modi government on China and geopolitics. However, if India’s economic focus is directed inward to an extent that the world economy does not see much value in it, differences will start holding back the relationship.

On values, despite the motif of liberal democracy connecting the two republics, there are significant divergences between the ruling Democrats in the United States and the Bharatiya Janata Party government in India. To the extent that the Biden administration remains committed to a strategic confrontation with China, it will be less pushy on the economy and liberal values. And to the extent that New Delhi manages to hold off Beijing without requiring Washington’s assistance, India will be less vulnerable to that pressure.