President Donald Trump’s “America First” ethos has permanently aligned India within the United States’ overarching Indo-Pacific strategy. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s unique personal chemistry with Trump has resulted in a pivotal geostrategic calculus to challenge the rise of restless China.
It is no coincidence that President-elect Joe Biden selected Senator Kamala Harris—a descendant of Indian heritage—as his running mate. But, even with Vice President-elect Harris, the Biden White House will still face great challenges to overcome Modi’s Hindu nationalist politics and Trump’s white evangelical-Christian nativism when confronting China.
The Trump White House discounted human rights and the rights of ethnic minorities at home and abroad, especially of Tibetans and Uyghurs in China as well as Muslims in Indian Kashmir. Yet, his evangelical-led administration has still used India as a counterweight to China by pursuing its Indo-Pacific strategy with Australia and Japan. Like with the Taiwan policy, the incoming Biden White House’s National Security Council will have no choice but to continue with Trump’s India policy in its battle with China, especially on the restructuring of global supply chains in the Sino-American “trade war” and the tech cold war.
Setting the Stage
To set a lasting foundation for U.S.-India relations, President Trump dispatched his top national security officials to New Delhi in late October 2020. The White House decision for the concurrent visit of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and then-Defense Secretary Mark Esper had significant salience. The visit took place just a few days ahead of the U.S. presidential election and during a pandemic that both the most powerful and largest democracies are failing to control, leaving no doubts about the Trump administration’s perception of the importance of American engagement with India.
It was Pompeo’s fourth visit to India as secretary of state and the third in the U.S.-India 2+2 ministerial dialogue as part of the broader Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (the Quad). His latest trip was most significant given that Pompeo was accompanied by Defense Secretary Esper in a scheduled meeting with their counterparts: India’s Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar and Defense Minister Rajnath Singh.
As members of the Quad with Australia and Japan, the United States and India have now signed the last of four foundational accords—the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA) for Geospatial and Intelligence Cooperation—to solidify their bilateral military ties and to access exceptionally accurate geospatial data, high-end defense technology, and classified satellite data on military-related issues. With the BECA agreement, the other three accords form the basis of the U.S.-India defense cooperation framework:
- General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) in 2002
-The Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) in 2016
-The Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) in 2018
The BECA agreement will be crucial for India given its June 2020 deadly border clashes with the Chinese People’s Liberation Army forces in the disputed Himalayan Galwan river valley in Ladakh and the previous Doklam valley standoff in the India-China-Bhutan trijunction border area. Under the agreement, the U.S. military will provide advanced navigational and avionic hardware in addition to sharing geospatial intelligence with India to deter Chinese transgressions into the Indian-claimed territories.
The Indian alliance with the Quad has now been solidified under a broad military pact. In protest, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi characterized the Quad’s goal to build an “Indo-Pacific NATO” in a strategy that harkens back to the Cold War. In 2018, however, Wang dismissed the Quad and the Indo-Pacific (instead of Asia-Pacific) alliance as an “attention-grabbing idea” that would “dissipate like ocean foam.” Despite his rhetoric, the evidence suggests an emergence of a new NATO-like Indo-Pacific alliance triggered largely by the recent Sino-Indian border confrontations in the Himalayan Ladakh region.
Beijing’s Strategic Miscalculations
The deaths of twenty Indian soldiers—together with an unconfirmed number on the Chinese side—in the Himalayan border skirmish were the first recorded casualties since 1975. The Modi government retaliated by banning over one hundred Chinese apps—such as WeChat and TikTok—for which India was supposed to become the biggest foreign market. In doing so, the Indian government renounced the 1988 breakthrough in which economic and cultural relations between India and China were to be developed irrespective of the ongoing border dispute. The Trump White House could not have been more pleased to secure India as a willing partner of the American trade and tech wars against China.
It is no secret that in recent years India and the United States have worked closely on tightening military, economic, and diplomatic cooperation. The cooperation began to accelerate with the U.S.-India Civil Nuclear Cooperation Treaty signed in 2008. After more than a decade of negotiations, the 2020 BECA agreement will now allow India and the United States to share satellite and mapping data for better accuracy of their missiles and drones—and for better surveillance against China and its “all-weather friend” Pakistan. With unanimous support from U.S. Congress, the longest-negotiated BECA accord is the final part of four military agreements between India and the United States that would fortify their military partnership to galvanize the Quad operations in the Indian Ocean and beyond.
Without directly stating that the U.S.-India alliance is aimed primarily at counterbalancing the influences of China, Pompeo remarked at the 2+2 ministerial dialogue in New Delhi that “we have a lot to discuss today: our cooperation on the pandemic that originated in Wuhan, to confronting the Chinese Communist Party’s threats to security and freedom, to promoting peace and stability throughout the region.” From his evangelical-Christian perspective, atheist-China is not the elephant in the room anymore, but the enemy of Christian America—openly pointing a finger at Beijing. While the Trump administration’s core values of nationalistic white supremacy have criticized China for its human rights abuses, it remains consciously blind to the treatment of Muslims in Kashmir by the Hindu nationalist government and the human rights abuses of Hispanic and Muslim immigrants in America, to name a few.
The Hedge Against the Biden Factor
Regardless of the significance of these values and agreements, some questions related to timing remain. Why did President Trump send his top national security officials only a few days ahead of the presidential election when the loss of his presidency was a possibility? Why didn’t India follow the “wait-and-watch” strategy until the U.S. election results were clarified?
The geopolitical context of Pompeo’s visit suggests it is a long-lasting strategy to limit the United States in its approaches to both China and India—and to ensure it will be continued regardless of who occupies the White House. Like the appointment of conservative judges to the U.S. Supreme Court for a lasting legacy, it is clear that Trump’s trade and tech wars with China will be inevitable and irreversible, regardless of President Biden’s intentions. Initiatives such as the Quad and the Indo-Pacific strategy confirm that the Biden administration has no choice but to counterbalance—or even isolate or possibly decouple with China—not just in economic but also in political domains.
In the prevailing domestic political perspectives, Pompeo’s visit to India was yet another occasion to use the “China threat” rhetoric and anti-Chinese sentiments in the presidential campaign to galvanize their voter base for years to come. From accusations of spreading the “Chinese virus” to presenting China as an economic bandit, Trump has been trying to mobilize his supporters while deflecting blame for the pandemic. His continued legacy—with a voter base of some 74 million, compared with 81 million who voted for President-elect Joe Biden—suggests that his style of American politics will not stop at the edges of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Having raised “huge sums of money from his loyal supporters,” his post-presidency will provide Trump with “tremendous flexibility” to advance his ambitions and to exploit his foreign policy initiates by advocating his success with conservative-evangelical voters and windfalls from the military-industrial complex (with his policies on armed sales to Saudi Arabia, Israel, Taiwan, India, and others).
Nonetheless, President-elect Biden will most certainly need to welcome Indian Prime Minister Modi’s iconic bear-hug, a symbol of his “personal diplomacy,” as well as the mutually beneficial nature of an evolved bilateral relationship.
Goodbye to Non-aligned Nonsense
With its new U.S. military alliance, India has finally removed the mask of “non-aligned” foreign policy which it has nominally employed since independence in 1947. During the Cold War, the so-called non-alignment was supposed to give India the flexibility to maneuver in its relations between the United States and the former Soviet Union. However, recent border tensions and China’s increasingly bold attempts at interfering in India’s internal affairs make it impossible for New Delhi to keep the facade of neutrality. As British Prime Minister Boris Johnson plans to visit India in January 2021 in his bid to transform the G7 group into a Democracy 10 (D-10) with Australia, South Korea, and India, the new democratic alliance would pave a way for the Biden administration to lead in combating authoritarian regimes and challenging China.
Yet in comparison to Secretary Pompeo and other Trump officials who openly call China an enemy, Indian leaders still seem much more restrained in their rhetoric. Although neither Jaishankar nor Singh called a spade a spade, the Indian government’s anti-Chinese motivations cannot be doubted anymore, despite some joint China-India soft power projects in recent years.