US-India relations: Biden should embrace Trump’s example and see India as a balance against China
- India can absorb some of the supply chains moving out of China, which would enhance its economic ability to take on its regional rival
- The Trump administration was proactive in expanding the US-India partnership, and Biden should build on this to bolster New Delhi’s role
In the policy world, there is a tendency to separate issues such as economics and security because of the bureaucratic process of policymaking. The declassified documents on the US strategy for the Indo-Pacific are no different: they clearly outline India’s role as a regional balancer in the region.
However, the focus is limited to conventional security challenges, defence collaboration and improving military interoperability between partners in the region. In a part of the world that accounts for 60 per cent of maritime trade, it is vital to focus on trade and economics.
They all rely on China for even some basic needs. The pandemic exposed their vulnerabilities to supply chain disruptions and their overreliance on the Chinese economy, both for imports and exports.
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India can play that role of regional economic balancer by partly absorbing the supply chains moving out of China. This will enhance its economic ability to take on China and serve as an alternative market for Quad nations.
The Modi administration’s vision of a multipolar world and in particular a multipolar Asia – as expressed by India’s External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar – fits well with a US strategy that positions India as a regional balancer.
Unlike the European Union, South Korea, or Japan, India does not seek American troops on its soil. In the past few years, the costs associated with the forward deployment of forces in these countries has earned bipartisan criticism.
India’s defence budget is funded by the taxpayer, and it has the world’s second-largest army to protect its sovereign territories. Fortunately for the US, India’s large army, its territorial dispute and deteriorating relations with China make it an ideal regional balancing candidate.
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Furthermore as Will Roper, the outgoing US Air Force assistant secretary for acquisition, technology and logistics, put it, “the scale factors are against us in terms of GDP and population and STEM talent”.
However, while both countries can gain from a closer economic partnership through the shifting of supply chains, positioning India as an economic balancer in the Indo-Pacific also comes with a host of challenges.
Third, there is a consensus among strategic thinkers that India’s rise could pose similar problems to China’s: what’s to say that, in 20 years, an economically stronger India would not challenge US primacy in the eastern hemisphere?
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The Biden administration should also design a trade bloc that includes the Quad to complement the resources of each economy. India’s primary hesitation for entering regional trade agreements has been fears of China’s dumping practices and restricted mobility for its human capital. A trade deal that prioritises these issues will serve as an attractive proposition for the world’s fifth-largest economy.
The Trump administration was proactive in expanding the scope of the US-India partnership through economic initiatives. It would be prudent for the Biden administration to build on this to solidify India’s role as the primary regional balancer in the Indo-Pacific.
Akhil Ramesh is a Non-Resident Vasey Fellow at the Pacific Forum. He has worked for premier risk-consulting firms, non-profit organisations and think tanks in New York and Washington