U.S.-India Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific
February 11, 2021
The transition from President Donald Trump to President Joe Biden is expected to generate significant shifts in U.S. foreign policy. However, one area where there will likely be significant continuity is in the Indo-Pacific. While the Biden administration faces both legacy and new challenges in advancing a free, open, and inclusive Indo-Pacific, the United States and India are also positioned to open a new chapter in bilateral cooperation in the region.
Continuity and Change in the U.S. Indo-Pacific Strategy
The recently declassified strategy document drafted by the Trump administration’s National Security Council highlights the key goals of the U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy. This includes strengthening India, ensuring unimpeded commerce in the Indian Ocean, and the creation of a free and open order in the Indo-Pacific. The strategy is hardly new and builds upon strategies advanced by President Trump’s predecessor administrations under Presidents Obama and Bush. President Biden, having played a central role in the Obama administration’s “pivot,” and later “rebalance,” to Asia will largely continue to pursue these goals. However, in doing so, his administration will also inherit the gaps between Indian and U.S. approaches to the Indo-Pacific. These gaps will be particularly evident when it comes to India’s interests in the Western Indian Ocean, which seemingly has been a lower priority for the United States. The Biden administration will also make important changes as it places a bigger emphasis on democratic values and human rights, potentially exposing new cleavages between the United States and India.
U.S. Engagement with India’s Neighbors
Washington’s ability to play a role in India’s neighborhood has long been moderated by Delhi’s desire to maintain its primacy in the region. However, China’s inroads within South Asia have opened opportunities for the United States and India to translate their shared concerns about China’s increasing aggressive and assertive behavior into sustained cooperation. While the Trump administration has directly highlighted the China threat during its engagements with India’s neighbors, India’s strategy has been subtler, aimed at countering Chinese influence in the region without explicitly mentioning China.
However, the Biden administration can capitalize on opportunities to cooperate more directly with India within South Asia and showcase their vision for the Indo-Pacific by collaborating more directly on capacity building, infrastructure development, and the region’s post-pandemic recovery. However, in pursuing these opportunities, the United States will need to continue to be sensitive to Indian concerns, listen closely to India’s articulations of its objectives in the region, and perhaps even recognize the benefits of stepping back and letting India take the lead.
Climate Change: A New Arena for Cooperation
One area of regional cooperation within the Indo-Pacific that was overlooked by the Trump administration but which could be rejuvenated under Biden is climate change. The maritime Indo-Pacific region faces unique threats from climate change, with rising sea levels threatening the region’s island nations and coastal regions, and rising ocean acidification accelerating competition over food resources such as fish stocks. While the Trump administration explicitly refused to engage on international cooperation on climate change, the Biden administration could take steps beyond rejoining the Paris climate accord to deepen cooperation on this issue in the Indo-Pacific. Such steps could include great involvement on these issues at the Indian Ocean Rim Association, where the United States is a “dialogue partner,” or joining the India-led International Solar Alliance.
Economics and Trade: The Weakest Link
Perhaps the weakest area for both India and the United States in the Indo-Pacific has been deepening economic cooperation with countries in the region. Both countries currently find themselves outside of the two emerging regional economic architectures—the United States withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and India withdrew from the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. While leaders from both countries rationalized their decisions by pointing to economic considerations at home, the lack of leadership on part of the United States and India on economic integration has not gone unnoticed by countries in the region. While Prime Minister Modi will continue to push forward on his message of a “self-reliant India” (Atmanirbhar Bharat), Biden will need to maneuver not just a protectionist Republican Party post-Trump, but an increasingly anti-trade left flank within his Democratic Party.
The United States and India have been on a path of increasing convergence on their strategies vis-à-vis the Indo-Pacific region over the last 20 years, spanning three administrations across both political parties. The Biden administration will become the fourth administration to continue this path of convergence. However, as the United States and India look to open a new chapter in their bilateral cooperation in this region, they will need to grapple with serious challenges and differences of opinion that will shape not just the trajectory of this deepening partnership, but the wider region as well.