Then-US Vice President Joe Biden and Prime Minister Narendra Modi in a file photo. Photo: Agencies/Pool

MUMBAI – United States President-elect Joe Biden may have inherited strong relations with India and a wide base to build a powerful alliance to counter China’s rising influence in the region.

But that didn’t deter Biden from gently nudging Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on their first phone conversation that reportedly touched on issues about “strengthening democracy at home and abroad.’’  

They also spoke about other key issues such as containing Covid-19 and how to respond to future health crises, tackling the threat of climate change, sparking a global economic recovery and maintaining a secure and prosperous Indo-Pacific region.

So are US-Indian relations poised for a reset under a Biden administration?

Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris had been critical of India clamping down on Jammu & Kashmir soon after the withdrawal of the bifurcated state’s special status.

The bifurcated state’s 63-year-old special status had prohibited outsiders from buying any immovable property and rendered central laws inapplicable on state citizens, creating an island within the country. Reintegration of the state was one of the main planks for Modi’s Hindu nationalist ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

To prevent any violence and unrest against removing the special status, the central government imposed curfews and banned the use of the internet for months.

This was seen as a violation of human rights and was raised by neighbor Pakistan, which has claimed the state since Pakistan was carved out of India in 1947. The two nations have fought at least three wars over the state.

India accuses Pakistan of sending trained armed terrorists into the state and raising issues concerning the state at international forums, which India says are purely its domestic issue.

Indian forces on alert in Srinagar, Kashmir in September after three militants and a woman were killed in a clash. Photo: Muzamil Mattoo/NurPhoto

Outgoing President Donald Trump and Modi built cordial relations, demonstrated camaraderie and held joint rallies at each other’s constituencies, which made for good optics but often without yielding substantial results on core bilateral issues.

Trump left the contentious issues of Kashmir, the national register of citizens and citizenship amendment act as India’s internal matters.

Biden, a senator for almost four decades and vice-president under Barack Obama for two terms, is known for his promotion of formal diplomacy, democratic institutions and human rights. He was twice the chief of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for two years each, giving him critical insight and vast experience in global affairs.

Still, the world’s oldest and the largest democracies, despite being closer than at any time in the past, still have several outstanding issues, from Trump’s increasing import duties on Indian goods to India’s purchase under sanctions waivers crude oil from Iran.

Contrary to widespread perceptions, Trump was seen by Indians as one of the friendliest US presidents. But with Biden in the saddle, India may have a better chance of getting a better deal on some of the still unsettled issues.

The key common issue remains China, which poses a growing threat to India along its 3,488-kilometer mountainous borders. For the US, India is a potential perfect counter with a large economy, armed forces and population to contain China’s expansionism across Asia.

The elevation of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD) and related expansion of India’s Malabar naval exercises in the Bay of Bengal and Arabian Sea with the US, Japan and Australia reflect a common will to counter China’s rising influence.

The contraction of India’s trade with China also presents an opportunity to Biden, who as vice president set a goal of lifting bilateral US-India trade to US$500 billion from $147 billion in 2019, according to US Trade Representative data.

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh talks with then-US Vice President Joe Biden in New Delhi, July 23, 2013. Photo: AFP

“Seven years ago, as Vice President, I told business leaders in Mumbai that the US-India partnership was the defining relationship of the 21st Century,’’ Biden wrote on October 22 in the IndiaWest newspaper in San Leandro, California.

“That’s why if elected President, I will continue what I have long called for: The US and India will stand together against terrorism in all its forms and work together to promote a region of peace and stability where neither China nor any other country threatens its neighbors,’’ Biden wrote in his op-ed.

“We’ll open markets and grow the middle class in both the United States and India, and confront other international challenges together, like climate change, global health, transnational terrorism and nuclear proliferation.’’

Still, as global economies including the US struggle to emerge from the pandemic’s deadly blow, Biden will find it tough to reverse the withdrawal of US’ Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) on some Indian imports imposed by Trump in 2019.

GSP privileges give an opportunity to less affluent countries to use trade to grow their economies and climb out of poverty. It promotes economic development by eliminating duties on thousands of products from 119 designated countries.

Almost 2,000 products from India valued at US$5.7 billion, which didn’t have to pay duty to enter the US, were taken off the privileged list under the move.

“India has implemented a wide array of trade barriers that create serious negative effects on United State’s commerce,” the USTR said in March 2019. “Despite intensive engagement, India has failed to take the necessary steps to meet the GSP criterion.”

Trump, who once described India as the “tariff king,” promised to sign a trade deal that would either neutralize or restore the duty advantage of the GSP during Modi’s visit to Houston in September 2019, a trip that was remembered more for the “Howdy Modi” public meeting of Indian-Americans.

US President Donald Trump shakes hands with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi during a joint press conference at Hyderabad House in New Delhi on February 25, 2020. Photo: AFP/Prakash Singh

Breaking India’s avowed policy of never taking sides in another country’s domestic politics, Modi encouraged expatriates to support Trump, surprising most foreign policy experts. Modi’s trip ended with an ambivalent Trump making no mention of the trade deal.

Neither the US nor India are party to the recently signed Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which brings 15 Asian nations including China into the world’s largest free trade agreement.

Analysts believe Biden sees the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) as a substitute that India could potentially join.  

Moreover, India’s software engineers and businessmen hope to find it easier to travel to the US as Biden may look to end Trump’s inward-looking policies, including a bar on foreign worker visas. Likewise, Biden is expected to rejoin the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Paris Agreement on Climate Change.

America’s rejoining the Paris Agreement would likely benefit India, which is hoping for investment from the Green Climate Fund into Indian renewable energy initiatives. India needs to control the unbridled increase in its pollution without affecting growth.

Closer to South Asia, Biden is expected to reverse Trump’s and follow Obama’s more conciliatory Iran policy. Trump-imposed sanctions on Iran made India’s cost of importing crude oil from other sources prohibitively expensive. US policy also pushed India out from getting a toe-hold in the Chabahar port in Iran and through it better access to Afghanistan and Central Asia markets.

India committed $500 million in initial investment in the Chabahar port and was helping Iran to build it, and committed another $400 million to construct a rail link to get access to Afghanistan and other countries in Central Asia.

But the fear of US sanctions scared away companies and contractors, leaving India with no choice but to withdraw from the project. China quickly moved in to fill the void.

Residents hold placards with the portrait of US Democratic Vice President-elect Kamala Harris as they celebrate her victory at her ancestral village of Thulasendrapuram in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu on November 8, 2020. Photo: AFP/STR

Vice President Harris, born to an Indian mother and a Jamaican father and popular with Indian expatriates, triggered a wave of hope across Pakistan with her comments back in 2019 as a presidential candidate that “the people of Kashmir are not alone.”

Still, what most observers missed was that these comments were made soon after Jammu & Kashmir was put under a curfew after India’s Parliament withdrew its special status. Her comments before the elections would also have earned Biden-Harris the goodwill of the expatriate population from Pakistan in the US.

Biden will likely seek to strike a balance with Pakistan, especially as the US is in the process of withdrawing its troops from what Trump termed the “endless war” in Afghanistan.

Whether Biden will seek to replicate how Obama interacted with India is unclear. That’s because Obama was dealing with Manmohan Singh in a diametrically different New Delhi under a trained economist, former central banker and modest academic who was prodded into becoming the prime minister.

Singh was known to take measured and considered steps after discussing thoroughly with his team and cabinet; Modi is more of a populist who seeks to appeal to emotion and notions of nationalism in his policy-making.

But as India grapples with China’s threat on its borders and a raging pandemic, it needs all the global support and alliances it can get. It also needs access and links to help it gain the latest technology to grow faster and having the US on its side would be crucial in that regard.