Trump mocked India as the “tariff king” and denied New Delhi the Generalised System of Preferences (GSP) privileges in trade as a developing country, causing billions of dollars of export losses to India, just to punish it for an overall trade surplus of just USD 17.42 billion. For comparison’s sake, the American trade deficit with China is USD 345.2 billion.
“The Modi government’s failure to resolve the trade disputes with the US administration is disappointing, could be potentially costly to India…” a top US expert on South Asia, Mumbai-born Ashley J. Tellis of the Carnegie endowment for international peace warned earlier this year. He blamed the Modi government’s “protectionist instincts and ambitions of self-reliance” saying the are preventing India from offering satisfactory solutions.
Joe Biden’s incoming administration is unlikely to change US trade policy vis-a-vis India even as newer and newer problems are piling up, including New Delhi’s data localisation requirements and e-commerce, to name a few. New Delhi will remain under pressure under Biden to once again provide trade concessions and opening its market to US business.
Another sticking point is the human rights issue in the face of the alleged dismantling of the country’s secular fabric, change of the autonomous status of Muslim majority Jammu and Kashmir, and bifurcation of this formerly princely state, which joined India in 1948 when attacked by tribal militia from neighbouring Pakistan. The Modi government is under constant pressure from the liberal camp at home and abroad for allegedly curbing religious freedom by enacting the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), discriminating against Muslims (migrants from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh) while towing his Hindu agenda. With the new dispensation in the White House this pressure will increase; Democrats as such are particularly infamous for using human rights issues as a powerful foreign policy tool.
China’s increasing self-assertive behaviour in the Indian Ocean and the Beijing - Islamabad nexus along its north-eastern and western borders are major security and defence concerns for India, which has reason for closer Indo - US military cooperation and the sale of US arms to New Delhi. Unlike Trump who had stopped military aid to Pakistan and pushed China in trade and militarily, Biden is not perceived as a China-baiter. Although he may mount pressure on Beijing for its human rights issues in Xinjiang, Tibet and Hong Kong, he not be that vocal on supporting India in its stand-off with its northern neighbour.
The concept of Indo-Pacific, albeit different in ambit for both sides, has been a driving force of the Indo-US strategic partnership, with the purpose of containing China. Under Trump it acquired the shape of ‘The Quad’, comprised of the US, Australia, Japan and India. India, which joined it only reluctantly, hopes Biden will return to Obama’s “pivot to Asia”, which in India’s view, should move the American forces from the Middle East to the west Pacific to ensure freedom of sailing in the South China Sea amid growing Chinese naval might.