Never has a new presidency in the United States been as dramatic and as tense as the change from Donald Trump to Joe Biden. The trauma that the country has been through in 2020, first the combined effect of the policies of Trump, national and international, a disastrous pandemic, which was mishandled, an unfriendly and close election, the results of which were opposed at every stage, leading to an armed rebellion, was unprecedented. It was the first time a serving president urged citizens to revolt to prevent confirmation of the election results. All this resulted in deep wounds and the process of healing will be slow and painful. The size of the task facing Biden to repair and rebuild the nation is huge. Unity is the need of the hour. The health crisis, the economic crisis, the racial crisis, the climate crisis, and the foreign policy challenge need urgent attention.
Biden’s biggest strength is his long experience in the government, particularly as Barack Obama’s vice president for eight years. The fact that the Democrats will have control over both the Senate and Congress is an additional advantage. He has already drawn up a bunch of executive orders to be declared instantly after swearing-in without waiting for Congress to pass them. Among them are canceling the travel ban on certain Islamic countries, rejoining the Paris Agreement on climate change, many pandemic related measures, a mask mandate for travel, and sweeping immigration laws. He will also push Congress to pass a $1.9 trillion incentive package to beat the pandemic and to revive the economy.
Biden has also decided to alter many foreign policies and also the relationship between the US and other countries. Biden’s China policy will see subtle changes than that of Trump as a dispute with China is not an option at the moment. China’s new decisions, combined with concerns over trade, technology, and the environment will have to be dealt with firmly. Biden will try to coordinate with the allies on China, particularly in the light of the major agreement reached between China and the European nations.
Interests in the Middle East
In the case of Iran, it has hardened its position by increasing its nuclear activities to be in a commanding position and is waiting for the US sanctions to be lifted and Biden has indicated that he will help, provided the old agreement is restored. Biden has also indicated that the Middle East countries like Saudi Arabia and the UAE should be involved even as Iran’s Revolutionary Guards test-fired ballistic missiles against targets in the Indian Ocean. The missiles were fired from central Iran with the targets located in the “northern Indian Ocean”. Biden will typically welcome the normalization of ties between Israel and the Gulf countries and the end of the ban against Qatar.
Biden is known to have a soft corner for Pakistan, but under Trump, the strategic bond with Pakistan is broken and Pakistan has become more dependent on China for its survival. But as long as the US troops remain in Afghanistan, the US will need Pakistan to make a smooth transition in Afghanistan. On Indian Independence Day 2020, Biden pledged “to confront the threats India faces in its own region and along its border” and this can not exclude the cross border terrorism India has been facing from Pakistan.
India-US relations: Expectations and concerns
The Chinese military action across the Line of Actual Control has brought India and the United States closer than ever before, particularly in defence cooperation. Towards the end of his term, Trump supported India against China, but he did not do anything special for India earlier.
The Modi-Trump friendship was exaggerated, as it was only Modi’s way of keeping him in good humour. The outright support that the Trump administration gave India and the strengthening of the ‘Quadrilateral’ against Chinese expansionism will remain. As Obama’s vice president and as presidential candidate, Biden has repeatedly expressed confidence in India-US relations. After the signing of the nuclear deal, there is nothing in the India-US relationship which requires immediate attention.
Certain structural problems remain in the trade, but bilateral trade has grown steadily to $90 billion. A trade agreement was on the cards towards the end of the Trump administration, but the Indian preoccupation with China and certain internal matters moved the focus away from the trade. It was more important to highlight cooperation in defence and the geostrategic ties than harp on differences in trade matters.
India’s dependence on 70 per cent of its military supplies from Moscow has been a sour point in the relations. Trump had threatened to block the supply of S-400 missiles as part of the US sanctions against Russia, but an exemption was given to India on the ground that, unlike Turkey, India would not deploy Russian missiles with any American equipment. Russia’s increasing links with China has distanced India from Russia, which will be welcomed by the US.
With Kamala Harris as vice president and nearly 20 senior officials of Indian origin in place, the expectation is that there will be more informed judgements on India, but all of them will primarily serve the national interests of the US.
Biden’s emphasis on a “middle class foreign policy”, which broadly means that foreign policy should lead to making the lives of working people better, safer and fairer. The US may have some concern over India’s increasing protectionism and distancing from globalisation, but with goodwill on both sides, India will be a partner in advancing the interests of the middle class in the US.
Biden is expected to deal with immigration issues even as he battles with immediate and present dangers and this is a good omen for India. The suspension of H-1B visas which had a negative impact on numerous Indian professionals is likely to be reversed by Biden. He will make it easier for qualified H-1B visa holders to secure their green cards. His policy will be to increase work visas for competent workers with special skills and issue more visas to students and visitors for the sake of boosting the US economy which will benefit India more than any other country. He will, however, be mindful of the sensitivity of the middle class in the US about losing their jobs to the immigrants.
One concern being expressed in India is the likely approach of the Biden administration to the real and imagined human rights situation in India. In the case of the new leadership, there have been statements expressing concern over the restrictions imposed on leaders, communications, particularly the press and the Internet in Jammu & Kashmir. But these were observations made before they became candidates officially and also in response to our External Affairs Minister’s boycott of a particular Congresswoman, who was critical of the government of India. Now that they are in the highest positions of the government, it is expected that there will be no public statements on such issues, though friendly caution may be expressed in private.
The change in leadership in the United States marks a new dawn, considering the unprecedented crises that have gripped the superpower. Added to it is the fear that the ceremonies on January 20 will be disrupted by the Trump supporters. The necessary precautions are being taken and, hopefully, there will be a peaceful transition.