Trump’s 2016 election victory over Democrat Hillary Clinton threw up a number of uncertainties for India. The first was how closed or open the U.S. would be on matters of trade, immigration, investment, and technology. The second concerned what approach he would adopt to China: confrontation, competition, cooperation, or confusion. This matter was particularly important because it would have had implications for the wider region and the world at large.
The third uncertainty was how he would approach the issue of terrorism, particularly with respect to Afghanistan and Pakistan. And the fourth was what priority he would give to international institutions, and what that would mean for Indian membership and activity.
The Trump administration’s overall approach and Indian engagement with Washington helped to ensure that these areas either witnessed intensified cooperation or that damage was mitigated. The Trump administration’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy, driven largely by a more competitive relationship with China, benefited India in various ways, including in bilateral defence cooperation and higher degrees of strategic coordination. The Trump administration decreased barriers for India to receive sensitive technologies, building upon some of the work done in the last two years of the Obama administration.
Coordination on multilateral cooperation and Afghanistan improved, although not without bumps on the road. Occasional difficulties did arise with respect to Pakistan, given Washington’s continued equities; on immigration, although radical reform was limited by logjams in the U.S. Congress; and especially on trade, where India was singled out for its high tariffs. Nonetheless, despite squabbling on the terms of commerce, overall two-way trade between India and the U.S. continued to rise throughout the Trump presidency while the trade deficit in India’s favour narrowed.
Two other complications arose subsequently. The first was the Trump administration’s hardening attitude to Iran, beginning with his unilateral withdrawal from the nuclear agreement concluded by his predecessor Barack Obama: the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The renewal of U.S. sanctions on Iran had implications for Indian energy security. The second complication involved attempts led by the U.S. Congress to constrain Trump’s ability to engage with Russia. The resulting legislation, known as Countering American Adversaries through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), threatened sanctions on countries for major defence agreements with Russia.
India, as the largest foreign recipient of Russian defence exports, initially looked like a probable target. At the same time, Trump’s disregard for other countries’ internal affairs meant that the official U.S. response to major changes in India — including the nullification of Article 370, which granted special status to Jammu and Kashmir, and the passage of a contested Citizenship Amendment Act — was relatively muted.
Essentially, Trump’s election had a significant impact on nine issues of importance for India. All will in some sense be at stake in November 2020. On the strategic side, this involved U.S. policy towards China, Russia, Afghanistan/Pakistan, and Iran/Middle East. In terms of bilateral relations, the primary issues relate to trade, immigration, investment, technology, and values.
Joe Biden’s victory would provide relief to India in several areas. Not only would there be more structure and stability to a Biden administration, but the Trump administration’s obsession with redressing trade deficits, curtailing legal and illegal immigration, and isolating Iran will no longer factor prominently in U.S. policy. Indeed, a second Trump administration will likely redouble its efforts to stem immigration, rebalance trade, and harden its stance on Iran — all of which would contribute further to Indian discomfort. Furthermore, a Democratic presidency will put one important but dormant area of cooperation — on climate change, green energy, and sustainability — back on the table with India.
By contrast, other issues might become more of a concern to the present government in New Delhi in the event of a Democratic win. Depending on who occupies key positions in the executive branch of the government, we may see under a Joe Biden presidency a return to a more even-handed policy between India and Pakistan in South Asia, although not perhaps to the same degree as the 1990s and early 2000s. A Biden administration, with advocacy from the left wing of the Democratic Party, will also likely be more vocal in its criticism of India for such steps as nullifying Article 370 and CAA.
On other issues — such as investment flows and technology sharing — the consequences of the 2020 presidential elections for India will be less clear-cut. Of these, U.S. policy on China will be by far the most consequential. Trump triggered a trade war that caught Beijing by surprise. Beyond trade, his administration has taken other aggressive steps towards decoupling the U.S. and Chinese economies, including steps on students and technology.
At the same time, his withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and defunding of the World Health Organisation have been criticised as counter-productive. Democrats have also criticized his administration for cutting spending in areas such as scientific research and development, that would enable the U.S. to better compete with China. While the bipartisan consensus on China as a competitor has grown in the U.S., there remain differences between the parties as to how best to compete. Furthermore, constituencies outside the national security, human rights, and intelligence communities