Remember the victory lap US President Donald Trump took, hand clasped with Prime Minister Narendra Modi as the Trump family beamed approval in February this year.
The event, held in the biggest cricket stadium in the world in Ahmedabad, was billed “Namaste Trump” and seemed like a Trump re-election rally. Now as results of the fiercely contested US presidential elections will soon be in, India is anxious. Will the Modi and Trump bear hug be looked upon less kindly by a Democratic establishment if Joe Biden wins? Just a week before the results of the US presidential elections are in, India signed the path-breaking Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA) which seals defence interoperability between the US and India.
It’s a measure of how far the relationship between the world’s largest democracy and the oldest democracy have come that the results of the election are not an impediment or even a possible veto on the very close relationship that India and the US enjoy. A senior foreign office official told me that the warmth of the embrace was because of a single reason - China and its new hawkish approach. India is still locked in a border stand-off with China, which shows no sign of resolution despite winter making the terrain near impossible to operate in. The Modi government seems in denial of the mega crisis and has still to go public into the extent of the aggression and occupation of our territory.
However, it has been more forthcoming with the US on the strategic challenge India faces. A Democratic administration led by Biden will be as hard-nosed as the Trump administration on China. Bill Burns, senior advisor to Biden, went on record to say: “Preventing China’s rise is beyond America’s capacity and our economies are too entangled to decouple. The US can, however, shape the environment into which China rises taking advantage of the web of allies and partners across the Indo-Pacific - from Japan and South Korea to a rising India.” A Biden administration, like most other democratic administrations, could give India a harder time on things like human rights and minority rights. India’s record under Modi for the past six years has been less than stellar on this. But, despite, the fantasy of the activists, a Biden administration will be driven by hard-nosed new realities of trade and China.
The mood in India has also changed with recent Chinese actions providing a sobering reality check. The new mood also puts in perspective India’s constant comparison of growth being benchmarked to China. The reality is that Chinese economy is very far ahead and is set to overtake the US as the biggest economy in the world in the next four years according to World Bank data. A trade comparison also provided by the World Bank makes it plain. China exported $2.499 trillion worth of goods in 2019, India exported $322.8 billion worth of goods in the same time period. Despite, the spread of COVID-19 and the new aggressive attitude adopted by Xi Jinping, China will continue to be the world’s factory for the foreseeable future.
The rise and rise of China is making India commit to a closer US relationship. And, the US is also looking for strategic alliances. Hence the new normal of BECA. Modi, who fancies himself as a global statesman, seems to have finally realised that his 18 meetings with Xi Jinping and the much heralded “spirit of Wuhan” has not really yielded what India wanted.
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From Atal Behari Vajpayee to Dr Manmohan Singh and now Narendra Modi, the India-US relationship has only gotten closer. This is the one foreign policy imperative that all recent governments agree on. India has to walk in step with the US because we have a common destination.