Indeed, at the strategic level, U.S.-India ties appear to have been spared much of the damage Washington’s foreign relations have sustained with other traditional partners and allies under the Trump administration. Substantive cooperation has flourished, particularly in the defense and intelligence realms.
The reality is that U.S.-India ties will flourish irrespective of who prevails in November. Biden, moreover, is uniquely well-suited to propel the relationship to even greater heights.
For much of India’s post-independence history, the United States and India were estranged due to differing Cold War politics and ideologies. Over the past 20 years, however, the two countries have made up for lost time, embarking upon a “strategic partnership” spanning virtually every area of cooperation.
Founded upon a convergence of interests and values, especially managing an ascendant China, the partnership has been animated by the recognition that a rising India aligns closely with U.S. interests. Aided by the increasingly influential Indian American diaspora, this has allowed the partnership to achieve a rarity in Washington’s hyperpolarized corridors of power: bipartisan consensus on the importance of strong ties with New Delhi.
The consensus has played a key role in managing challenges between the two countries, including India’s defense relationship with Russia and energy relationship with Iran. But focusing on the GOP narrative obscures Democrats’ contributions to the partnership.
Bill Clinton’s historic trip to India in 2000 laid the groundwork for President George W. Bush’s transformative U.S.-India civilian nuclear deal, setting ties on the positive course they enjoy today. The visit was visionary, ending a turbulent period in the bilateral relationship following India’s explosive nuclear tests.
Barack Obama further deepened engagement with India, achieving major milestones in trade, climate change collaboration, and security and defense through his designation of India as a “major defense partner.”
And Biden himself championed stronger U.S.-India ties long before it was in vogue.
In the immediate aftermath of India’s nuclear tests in 1998, Biden was one of the few voices advocating dialogue with India. He was among the first to call upon the Bush administration to unilaterally drop sanctions against India in 2001. Starting in 2005, he spearheaded efforts to secure overwhelming bipartisan congressional approval of Bush’s landmark nuclear agreement. As vice president, Biden was a mainspring of Obama’s foreign policy and helped ensure that India remained a top priority.
If Biden is elected president, his longstanding engagement with India would present an alternative to the narrow transactionalism that has characterized Trump’s approach. U.S.-India ties have grown unevenly under Trump, with the grandiose rhetoric and flashy public events often masking zero-sum calculations. Biden would return the bilateral relationship to sustained cooperation across a wide spectrum of arenas, benefitting both countries in the long run. Trade and immigration, in particular, will likely generate less friction under Biden.
Even under the Trump administration, Democrats have played a vital role in maintaining U.S.-India cooperation. Last year, for example, House Foreign Affairs Chairman Eliot Engel (N.Y.) and fellow Democratic Rep. Brad Sherman (Calif.) played a critical role in pushing back against Trump’s offers to mediate between India and Pakistan on Kashmir, long a third rail in U.S.-India relations.
Although some Democrats have criticized the controversial features of Modi’s domestic agenda, tough talk toward India has been truly bipartisan. Disagreements between even the closest partners are natural and inevitable. Countries as close as the United States and India should feel comfortable expressing their concerns to each other, secure in the knowledge that this will not undermine the foundational pillars of the relationship.
Recent events offer a powerful reminder of this principle. China’s aggression along India’s border, resulting in the gruesome deaths of at least 20 Indian soldiers and an unknown number of Chinese troops, prompted several statements of support from the Trump administration and a letter from Engel and Michael McCaul (Tex.), the ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, reaffirming “strong bipartisan support for the U.S.-India relationship.” Although the letter raised concerns over the situation in Kashmir, they were part of broader encomiums for the partnership.
Ultimately, no political party enjoys a monopoly over strengthening U.S.-India ties. The partnership will grow regardless of which group takes control of the White House or Capitol Hill in November.