Biden Must Build on Trump's Partnership with India

Biden Must Build on Trump's Partnership with India

Grounding U.S. India policy in five key principles can help the Biden administration build upon the efforts of past administrations, avoiding pitfalls that could stymie U.S.-India cooperation, and leveraging opportunities that will advance it.

The United States must ensure that the foreign policy bureaucracy’s pursuit of its own goals does not undermine national strategic aims. Senior leadership can help by enunciating clearly where U.S. strategic priorities lie. Pompeo, to this end, issued State Department-wide guidance emphasizing both the general importance of U.S.-India cooperation and the need to remove specific obstacles to technology transfer that would impede defense sales and other strategic coordination. Current senior leadership should do likewise. Reinforcing the message can help to avoid not just lost opportunities, but also prevent damage to the U.S.-India relationship resulting from misplaced priorities.

FIFTH, AVOID false equivalence between India and Pakistan. For decades, policymakers spoke of India and Pakistan in the same breath, treating the two countries as a single, hyphenated entity united by a common conflict. Although this practice has become less common in recent years, the United States has still often devised policy toward India or Pakistan with the opposing state in mind. As a result, the United States has limited its strategic cooperation with India, and enhanced its cooperation with Pakistan, hoping to prevent India from gaining a strategic advantage that would upset regional stability.

This has led the United States to refuse to share important military technology with India; to classify India as a “proliferation concern,” which has impeded the ability of senior Indian officials to travel to the United States; and to publicly equate Indian and Pakistani nuclear weapons capabilities, stating that it takes a similarly critical view of each country’s forces. Meanwhile, this approach has led the United States to sell Pakistan advanced military equipment such as the F-16 Fighting Falcon; to make Pakistan a major non-NATO ally, a designation reserved for only the United States’ closest strategic partners; and to give Pakistan over $70 billion in military and economic assistance, making it Pakistan’s largest single aid donor.

This approach is misguided. India is far more important to the United States than Pakistan. India’s territory, population, military, and economy are much larger, and its interests and preferences converge more closely with the United States than those of Pakistan. Unlike Pakistan, India does not view China as an “all-weather friend,” does not nurture and deploy Islamist militants as strategic assets, opposed Taliban domination of Afghanistan, and has been a responsible steward of nuclear weapons and technologies. If the United States pursues an artificially “balanced” South Asia policy, it will miss opportunities to advance strategic cooperation with India, indirectly support Islamist militancy, and strengthen China’s hand.

The United States needs to be prepared to accept a certain amount of imbalance in its approach to South Asia: publicly criticizing bad Pakistani behavior; conditioning further aid to Pakistan on the implementation of more constructive Pakistani policies; and aggressively pursuing U.S.-India cooperation, even if doing so risks tipping the regional balance further in favor of India. Given the stakes in the Indo-Pacific, that is a price worth paying. The principle of equivalence is increasingly irrelevant to the current strategic environment and should no longer guide U.S. policy in the region.

THE UNITED States is not “back” in the U.S.-India relationship—it never left. The Trump administration, building on a bipartisan legacy of cooperation from the Bush and Obama eras, made U.S.-India partnership a centerpiece of its foreign policy, strengthening its underlying logic and reaching important policy milestones. This would not have happened had the Trump administration been absent or indifferent. Today, the Biden administration does not need to begin the U.S.-India relationship anew. Rather, it needs to build on what its predecessors already have accomplished. Grounding its India policy in the principles that I have offered can help the new administration to do just that, avoiding pitfalls that could stymie U.S.-India cooperation, and leveraging opportunities that will advance it. Doing so will increase the likelihood that the United States, India, and their like-minded partners are able to offset rising Chinese power, and ensure that the Indo-Pacific region remains free and open.

S. Paul Kapur is a professor in the Department of National Security Affairs at the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School and a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution. From 2020–2021 he served on the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff. The opinions of this article are his alone.

Image: Reuters.