Long Read: Trump Or Biden, Who India Wants To See As The Next US President
While a Trump 2.0 could further add to the trade uncertainty, a Biden 1.0 threatens to complicate matters on many fronts.
However, if the polls are anything to go by, Indians must keep an open mind and a plan ready for ‘President Joe Biden’.
Almost 48-hours from now, the world will, hopefully, have a clear idea of the man who is going to be the commander-in-chief of the United States of America for the next four years.
Even as a national election, the US Presidential elections warrant attention from across the world. However, this is assuming that either side will not contest the election results and it won't take the declaration of the Supreme Court to decide the next caretaker of the White House.
As of now, and as witnessed in 2016, the polls are not favouring President Donald Trump. Popular election forecast website FiveThirtyEight puts Trump chances at 10 per cent using 40,000 outcome simulations. When it comes to winning the popular vote, the same site puts Trump's chances at 3 in 100. It only gets worse if one digs further into their analysis. The chances of Joe Biden winning in a landslide stand at 28 out of 100, for Trump it's less than 1 in 100.
Simply put, the forecasts, and even the stock markets by one pattern, they all are predicting a Biden administration. However, the same forecasts were predicting a Hillary Clinton administration in 2016.
Given the unpredictability that was a highlight of Trump's foreign policy, the Narendra Modi government in India must be credited for cultivating a thriving relationship with this administration, moving on from the Modi-Barack Obama camaraderie.
In September 2019, the two leaders came together in Texas, one of Trump's strongholds, for 'Howdy Modi'. The event was attended by 50,000 Indian-Americans and was aimed at drawing the Indian-American community away from the Democrats, a party they have traditionally been supporting.
In February 2020, just before the pandemic took over the world, Trump was greeted by around 100,000 people in Ahmedabad's Motera Stadium during his short tour to India. The elaborate programme at Motera was a show of strength of the US-India alliance for the world to witness.
It turns out, this camaraderie between the leaders is transforming into success on the ground for Trump as more Indian-Americans now view Republican party favourably than ever.
While in 2008, 93 per cent of the Indian Americans voted Obama, in 2016, 16 per cent of them voted for Trump. In 2020, it is expected that 28 per cent of them will come out in support of the sitting President. The closeness between the two leaders of the world's largest democracies has tilted some support on the ground towards Trump.
What makes this support more critical is that Florida with 29 electoral votes, Pennsylvania with 20 electoral votes, and Michigan with 16 electoral votes have a significant number of Indian-American voters, and if the election gets too close, these states will matter.
However, back home in India, the analysts, the experts, and the government would be eyeing the election closely for many reasons.
Firstly, China. Interestingly, for both the United States and India, relations with China are at an all-time low.
For the former, the 'Chinese virus' that has impacted millions of American families and has led to the death of more than 230,000 citizens will be a crucial agenda, followed by the ongoing and somewhat forgotten trade war, intellectual property theft, South China Sea, Taiwan, and of course, the question of global hegemony.
For India, China has been finally (read 30 years late) accepted as a more significant threat than Pakistan.
The short brawl in Ladakh that led to the death of 20 Indian soldiers and countless Chinese ones has ushered a long winter along the Line of Actual Control. To further complicate matters, China's expansionary stance in the Indian Ocean, debt trap in Sri Lanka, Pakistan, and even Myanmar, and growing closeness to Bangladesh and Nepal has increased India's apprehensions against its dictatorial neighbour.
Thus, what turn does the alliance between India and the US take would depend a lot on who takes the iron throne in the Oval Office. Already, the Trump-Modi administrations have agreed to the pursuit of a free and open Indo-Pacific, thus giving the QUAD a second lease of life.
As elaborated by this author in the video here, the coming together of US, India, and Japan, and the subsequent acceptance of Australia to join the Malabar Naval Exercise in the Bay of Bengal and the Arabia Sea would be critical to the formalisation of the QUAD.
While the US was the only nation to make a direct reference to China in the QUAD dialogue held in Tokyo in October 2020, a second Trump term may further accelerate the process of formalising the QUAD while hinting at having other nations being a part of the group at a later date. To put it simply, the momentum that comes with a second term for Trump could be critical for the QUAD.
However, for a Biden 1.0, as is the case with any new administration, the prospects for a new understanding with China would be higher. While Biden has not publicly commented against Trump's stance on China, a softer posture against China could go against the long-term interests of the QUAD, thus giving China an additional advantage to strengthen its defences in the Indo-Pacific region.
Writing for Foreign Affairs earlier this year, Biden himself hinted on taking the economic route to tackle China. Interestingly, the op-ed makes no mention of the QUAD or free Indo-Pacific but merely dwells on the same tactics unsuccessfully employed by the Obama administration — that of getting China to play fair by aligning democracies of the world.
The question of China links to trade as well. In 2019, with $146 billion worth of trade with India, US overtook China as India's largest trade partner. From $113.6 billion in 2016, trade between India and the US has increased to $146 billion by the end of 2019. However, for the US, India is the ninth largest trading partner, and a Trump 2.0 could better this.
In a post-Covid world, Trump 2.0 would want US supply chains to exit China, as previously hinted by the President himself on Twitter. While the recipients of this departure could be many countries including Vietnam or Mexico, India has been quietly reaching out to some leading giants to come and manufacture in India, for the world.
Already, Apple has increased its production capacity in India. Before June, India was already looking to lure more than 1,000 companies away from China. A Trump 2.0 could prove to be a shot in the arm for India's pursuit to replace China.
However, a Biden 1.0 would most probably take a different approach.
Coming out in support of the American middle class impacted by the trade war, Biden has called Trump's trade war ill-advised. As stated above, a new administration could look to renegotiate the trade terms with China, and that may ease the departure of supply chains from China. Already, experts are looking forward to Biden 1.0 to reduce the trade uncertainty that was the highlight of Trump 1.0. India would want to benefit more from the trade war.
When it comes to the Asian dragon, India would also be interested in a potential Biden 1.0's stance on the rising military posturing of China in the South China Sea, given its direct implications of China's posturing along the LAC.
While the Democrats are expected to support the cause of Taiwan, the Democratic National Convention has already rejected a 'Cold War' mentality to tackle China. Biden has stated that he wants to go tougher on China as compared to Trump but through a less confrontational route. China would enjoy that ambiguity.
While any American foreign policy, irrespective of the caretaker of the Oval Office, is expected to align with India if a conflict with China breaks out, India would prefer to have a president that goes more bullish on China.
In case of a Biden 1.0, India must have all its cards ready to work out a new strategy for the Indo-Pacific that focusses on China, similar to the one advocated during the Obama administration but left incomplete. However, a Biden 1.0 would be more focussed on getting America's population and economy out of Covid than tackling China.
Secondly, the issue of H1B visas.
Since his campaign days in 2016, Trump has vowed to bring back jobs to the US. A Trump 2.0 would further accelerate the process, much to the despair of Indians and Indian companies relying on H1B visas.
Since almost three-quarters of the H1B visas are awarded to Indians, this does become a critical issue when it comes to the national elections.
The recent changes announced by the Department of Homeland Security and Department of Labour concerning the wages of H1B workers are expected to curb the movement of IT employees, increase the financial burden on companies employing H1B workers, and most importantly, would slash prospects for most entry-level workers.
Meanwhile, Biden has promised to overturn the H1B ban announced by Trump earlier this year. While he has been mostly in favour of allowing migrant workers, holders of H1B visas not only from India but several other countries, Biden has supported the wage-based changes announced for the H1B structure.
Thus, irrespective of who wins the Oval Office, concerns surrounding H1B are here to remain for the Indian companies. However, given the stiff opposition from the likes of Google, Microsoft, and other big companies, any administration more open to the interests of Silicon Valley and Indian workers may rework the H1B approach, but as of now, it appears to be a long shot.
Three, the defence ties.
Trump's visit to India in February 2020 was an indicator of how far the defence ties between the two nations have progressed. Between the US and India, the defence trade has increased from around $200 million in 2000 to over $20 billion in 2020.
In 2020 alone, India ordered 24 MH-60R Seahawk anti-submarine warfare helicopters, 6 AH-64E Apache helicopters. Together, these acquisitions were close to $3 billion. The Indian Army had placed the first order for 72,400 of SIG716 Assault Rifles in February 2019 under the fast-track programme at the cost of around Rs 700 crore and started receiving its first pieces under this deal in December 2019. Earlier this year, procurement for 72,000 more rifles was cleared by the Defence Ministry.
Less than a week ago, India and the US met for the third 2+2 dialogue and signed the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA) on geospatial intelligence, sharing information on maps and satellite imagery for defence purposes. With BECA, India has all access to US' advanced geospatial intelligence, thus enhancing the accuracy of the automated systems.
In the first 2+2 dialogue, in September 2018, the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement was signed. The pact allowed for the transfer of security apparatus from the US to India that ensured 'interoperability' between the two forces.
In August 2016, the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement was signed. The pact allowed the military of each country to access supplies and spare parts from the other country. Amidst the heightened tensions with China, India used this pact to acquire more than 11,000 high-altitude systems for the forces preparing for a long winter in Ladakh. This was the first time the logistics agreement was put into operations.
While the defence ties between India and the US grew during the Obama administration as well, a Biden 1.0 may be constrained by moral imperatives when it comes to defence deals.
The different reactions from the Democrats and Republicans to the removal of Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir, and the Citizenship Amendment Act reflect that with a Biden 1.0, the business as usual approach of the Trump era could come under strain. Given the tensions with China, India would want a partner in the Oval Office that keeps the growing potential of US-India defence partnership over India's internal politics.
Even on Iran and Islamic terror, the approaches taken by the two parties are poles apart. While a potential Biden 1.0 would look to rework its relationship with Iran, especially after Trump's exit from the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) or the Iran Nuclear Deal, a Trump 2.0 would further sanction the nation, locking it out of the global financial system. Though the Trump administration has assured that the Chabahar Port will not come under US sanctions, a Trump 2.0 could go harder on Iran, further complicating matters for India.
On Islamic terror, however, the Trump approach favours India. Shunning political correctness, Trump mentioned Islamic terror in his inaugural speech. Biden, meanwhile, has shied away from the subject of Islamic terror.
On other issues too concerning Muslims in America, Biden has adopted anti-India stance. On his agenda of Muslim-American communities, it states that Biden advocates the restoration of rights for the Kashmiri people that existed before the removal of Article 370. The Biden agenda is also against the NRC that happened in Assam and the implementation of the CAA.
Trump, however, has chosen not to interfere in India's domestic issues while Biden has promised to employ Muslims at every level within his administration.
India's internal affairs would be an imperative for Biden 1.0, more so than they were for Trump, and this could have a direct bearing on India's defence and trade tie. The ties could be threatened by the ‘mindless wokeness’ of the groups that influence and plague Biden 1.0.
Lastly, Indians are not too swayed by Kamala Harris, Biden's nominee for Vice-President, as well. While her Indian origins could give a few reasons to cheer, Harris, in public life has identified herself more as an African-American, and the same identity has prevailed in her political life as well. Thus, in the backdrop of the 'Black Lives Matter' protests, Biden's choice for Harris was more about wooing the black voters.
Harris has also linked the events in Kashmir with human rights violations. In December 2019, Harris criticised S Jaishankar's refusal to meet Pramila Jaypal, who had introduced a resolution to urge India to remove restrictions in Kashmir. Also, as per some media reports, Harris commands a low reputation amongst the Indian-American voters.
So, who would Indians want to see in the Oval Office?
While a Trump 2.0 could further add to the trade uncertainty, a Biden 1.0 threatens to complicate matters on many fronts. However, if the polls are anything to go by, Indians must keep an open mind and a plan ready for 'President Joe Biden', even as they wish for Trump, the friend of India, to stage a comeback.
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