Much has been made of the personal bonhomie between US President Donald Trump and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. High-decibel rallies, and Trump’s occasionally appreciative tweets, have given the Indo-US relationship a veneer of warmth and camaraderie. But, actual policy outcomes show that Trump’s approach to India and Indian-Americans has been short-sighted and counterproductive.
Trump’s zero-sum, winner-takes- all worldview collide with India’s priorities on trade, energy, defense, and immigration, and do not create a fertile ground for cooperation. A Joe Biden administration promises to do better.
As Vice President to Barack Obama from 2009 to 2017, Joe Biden was a driving force of the administration’s foreign policy agenda. This included prioritising a strong partnership with India. Biden’s support for India extends back to his time in the Senate, when he helped secure Congressional approval for the 2008 U.S.-India civil nuclear agreement. Biden then played a pivotal role in the Obama administration’s strong embrace of India.
Trade and Energy
India and the US have a robust trading relationship, valued at over $142 billion. While the countries have long-standing disputes, the Obama-Biden administration worked systematically to overcome these differences. As a result, the countries announced progress on numerous trade issues, including intellectual property, bilateral investment, and technology. The Obama-Biden administration also helped persuade India to sign on to the Paris Climate Accords , and made clean energy and climate change cooperation a big part of the U.S.-India partnership.
Unfortunately, Trump has squandered that inheritance. He has chosen to narrowly focus on the trade deficit in goods and imposed tariffs on Indian imports. A focus on the deficit, which is actually relatively low, ignores the whole spectrum of US-India relations, which includes services, foreign direct investment, energy, and defense sales. Trump’s withdrawal from the Climate Accords meant that promises made to India on clean energy cooperation were also abandoned. President Trump’s visit to India in February 2020 was big on optics but did not result in the trade deal that he had promised.
Immigration is another issue which tie the India and US together-and Trump has been far from helpful on this count. Trump’s approach to immigration has been xenophobic and chaotic, marked by burdensome and shifting rules. His administration has clamped down on pathways to legal immigration, including through education, work qualification and family ties, which are all avenues that have been widely used by immigrants to the US from India.
India is, by far, the largest recipient of H1B visas, which allow US companies to employ overseas workers for specialty occupations. Many US employers view Indians as valuable employees who can provide skills that are in short supply domestically. Until 2016, this category showed steady growth. But recent restrictions on this category have hit Indians particularly hard.
India is also the second-largest source of foreign students to the US. The Trump administration has taken sharp aim at the F-1 student visa category. As a result, the number of new international students enrolling in US universities has declined. US universities value Indian students but Trump’s actions make the country less attractive to qualified Indian nationals.
In contrast, the Obama-Biden administration’s efforts benefited Indian immigrants. It permitted spouses of some H1B visa holders to obtain work authorisation, helping to reduce the financial burden on families waiting to get green cards. Obama also proposed reforms that would streamline visa application procedures and provide more flexibility to Indians on student and work visas.
The Obama-Biden administration focused on building a broad spectrum strategic partnership in defense, including cooperation on technology, military training, and on countries of mutual interest, such as Afghanistan. In 2015, the two sides renewed their defense framework agreement and Obama even declared India a major defense partner.
In contrast, the Trump administration has largely treated India as a cash register for American defense contractors. While pushing defense sales, the President has threatened to sanction India over its transactions with Russia and complicated the country’s long-standing ties to Iran. Such actions show disrespect for India’s cherished strategic autonomy. Trump has also abdicated the US’s stabilizing role in Asia-Pacific. This has emboldened China to be aggressive – and India has been at the receiving end of this. While India and the US continue to work on common defense goals, the fact is that Trump has not been a reliable partner. As a result, India remains wary of getting too close to the US.
What Biden would bring India
A Democratic administration would build on Biden’s long-standing support for strong US-India relations. His economic agenda proposes revamping international trade rules in ways that will benefit both the US and its partners, including India. The Biden team’s focus on technology innovation can benefit Indian industry and Indian immigrants in the US. On immigration, a Biden administration promises to be fair, rational, and systematic. Moreover, Biden has proposed a comprehensive and strategic plan to limit China’s influence; and India will be a necessary partner in those efforts.
With India, the Trump administration has focused narrowly on a few pet issues – mostly trade retaliation and defense sales. Massive rallies and tweets have not translated into sustained and strategic progress. In fact, Trump has often taken steps that make it more difficult for the two countries to work together. On the other hand, as Senator and Vice-President, Biden invested in a building a long-term US-India partnership.
It follows that a Biden administration will result in more productive relations between the two countries. In a recent speech, Biden pledged to make a U.S.-India strategic partnership a “high priority”. Indians and Americans of Indian origin should welcome a US president who understands what’s truly important in the relationship – trust, reciprocity, and a shared vision.
Bidisha Biswas is Professor of Political Science at Western Washington University.