The United States and India share friendly bilateral relations encompassing trade, business, economic, defense, strategic, political and cultural relations. U.S.-India relations have evolved from being frosty during the Cold War to becoming transactional in the 1990s, and eventually gaining strategic significance in the twenty-first century.
The post-Cold War world order forced India recognize the importance of building a partnership with the US, and in turn, made the US see India as a global giant that offers immense economic and geopolitical opportunities.
US-India relations began to take shape in the wake of the 9/11 attacks due to New Delhi’s willingness to support Washington’s ‘war on terror’ in Afghanistan. A breakthrough came in 2006 when US and India signed the Civil Nuclear Deal (123 Agreement) underlining the willingness in Washington to accommodate India’s rising power aspirations. Under the Barack Obama administration (2009-17), bilateral ties strengthened, with Obama becoming the first American president to be the chief guest for India’s Republic Day celebrations in January 2015.
One of the key areas of cooperation that emerged since the 2000s has been defense. India’s quest for defense modernization and diversification of imports meant that between 2010 and 2014, the US became the second largest arms exporter to India after Russia. In August 2016, the US designated India as a Major Defense Partner, enabling more defense exports to India. Obama’s ‘pivot to Asia’ policy boosted US-India cooperation due to the shared concerns about China’s assertive foreign policy in South and Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean region.
Under Donald Trump, US-India relations thrived because of the growing understanding on bilateral, regional and global issues. The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue – or Quad – between the US, India, Australia and Japan took on a more cohesive shape during this period with a focus on asserting a ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific.’ In addition, the US and India began working more closely on stabilizing Afghanistan. President Trump’s 2018 decision to suspend military aid to Pakistan for continuing to support terrorism indicated to India America’s willingness to work with New Delhi for peace and stability in South Asia.
As the Joe Biden administration’s priorities begin to take shape, it is clear that India occupies a position of prominence in its foreign policy. There are three key areas which the US and India will focus on in the coming years. Firstly, the two will work on strengthening their strategic partnership in the Indo-Pacific. Biden, like his two predecessors, has underlined the need for containing China’s aggressive foreign and economic policies in the Indo-Pacific. For India this is important because of the growing concerns in New Delhi about Beijing’s belligerent actions in South and Southeast Asia as well as in the western Indian Ocean. The border skirmishes between India and China in 2017 (Doklam) and 2020 (Galwan) have reinforced India’s threat perception vis-à-vis China. This means that the US-India partnership through the Quad will begin to take a concrete shape.
Secondly, the US is set to complete its withdrawal from Afghanistan in September 2021, and Washington and New Delhi, who have a shared interest in the stability of the Afghan government, are likely to work together to support Afghanistan. In March 2021, the US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, proposed a ‘unified approach’ to move forward in the Afghan peace process through a foreign minister-level meeting among the US, Russia, China, India, Iran and Pakistan under the United Nations umbrella. The inclusion of India in the proposed process is a testimony to India’s growing importance in US policy calculations on Afghanistan. For India, this is important because of its strategic interests in Afghanistan, which is important for a peace and stability in South Asia.
Thirdly, the US and India will enhance their cooperation in multilateral forums on issues of global concern, most importantly on the fight against Covid-19 and climate change. President Biden has begun reviving US engagements with global multilateral organizations such as the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Paris Agreement on climate change. India, which witnessed a devastating second wave of Covid-19 in April-May 2021, is seeking US support to vaccinate its population as well as to provide vaccination to poor nations across the world through the WHO. Even on climate change, India – which is committed to reduce its carbon footprints – is seeking US support for acquiring green technology.
A testimony to the growing US-India partnership is the visit of Indian External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar to the US from May 24-28, 2021, during which time a gamut of issues are on the agenda, including Covid-19, climate change, Afghanistan and bilateral economic ties.
Under the Biden administration, the US and India are set to further strengthen bilateral relation and work together to fight global economic, political and environmental challenges in multilateral forums. The geopolitical alignments in Asia and Indo-Pacific are bringing Washington and New Delhi closer together as new dynamics in bilateral relations are emerging.
*Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of MP-IDSA or Government of India.