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A Solid Handoff in the U.S-India Relationship


The conventional wisdom is that the foreign policy of Donald Trump’s Administration severely damaged relations with U.S. allies and partners. Commentators point to repeated criticism by the United States of friends in Europe and Asia, as well as the abrupt withdrawal from trade and other arrangements. But such critics overlook the U.S. relationship with India, which made significant advances and will be an area of substantial continuity in Joseph Biden’s Administration.

The U.S.-India partnership has grown steadily since the turn of the century, with the past four years seeing major progress in diplomatic, defense, economic, energy and health cooperation. The strengthened bilateral relationship has become the backbone of an Indo-Pacific strategy designed to promote peace and prosperity in a dynamic and contested region.

The longstanding U.S. commitment to the Indo-Pacific has underpinned the stability and remarkable economic rise of this region over the last 70 years. While the concept of the Indo-Pacific has been many years in the making, in the past four years the United States and India have turned it into a reality. For the United States, the Indo-Pacific agenda meant working with India to provide coordinated leadership in addressing the threat from an expansionist China, the need for more economic connectivity and other challenges in the region.

Having articulated a common vision for the Indo-Pacific, the United States and India began working with other like-minded countries in building out the architecture of this region, while supporting the centrality of ASEAN. The two countries joined with Japan and Australia for Quadrilateral Ministerials (the Quad) in 2019 and 2020, which led to greater cooperation in maritime security, pandemic management, regional connectivity, cybersecurity, and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.

Revitalizing and expanding the Quad, which had been dormant for a decade, took careful and patient diplomacy. Its success reassured the region that a concert of responsible democracies, open to collaboration with other countries big and small, could set a positive and inclusive agenda at a time when China was unilaterally seeking to revise maps and undermine the sovereignty of other countries in pursuit of its geopolitical goals.

To reinforce these diplomatic efforts, the Trump Administration deepened defense and security cooperation with India. This cooperation reached a new level in 2018 with the inaugural 2+2 Ministerial Dialogue of American and Indian defense and foreign policy leaders, followed by two more rounds in successive years. Both sides signed pivotal agreements at each round, increasing the interoperability of defense forces and industries. The two countries also expanded the complexity of a robust series of military exercises, including the first-ever tri-services exercise in 2019 and Australia’s participation in the Malabar naval exercise, alongside Japan. And, for the first time, the United States and India hosted liaison officers at each other’s military facilities.

On the economic front, the Trump Administration worked with the private sector and the Indian government to expand trade and investment ties, despite the inability to conclude a bilateral trade package. Looking at statistics prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, bilateral trade in goods and services in 2019 surged to $146.1 billion, up from $113.6 billion in 2016, with U.S. exports to India growing from $41.2 billion to $58.6 billion during that period. Today, the United States is India’s largest trading partner, and India is the ninth-largest partner of the United States.

Another key element of the partnership involved energy, where the Trump Administration sought to capitalize on recent growth in domestic sources of energy to expand commercial opportunities with India and buttress India’s energy security. In 2018, the two countries launched a Strategic Energy Partnership and, with support from both governments, the United States is now an important source of energy for India. By 2019, India had become the largest export destination for U.S. coal, the fourth-largest destination for U.S. crude and the seventh-largest destination for U.S. liquefied natural gas.

Engagement on health and science was another area of progress in the past four years. Experts from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) supported India’s COVID-19 efforts with technical guidance and training, including contact tracing, diagnostic testing and infection prevention and control at health facilities. Hundreds of Indian graduates of CDC training programs have been at the forefront of India’s response to the virus. In addition, American and Indian scientists have collaborated to develop vaccines and treatments for COVID-19. Institutions and companies from both countries partnered to utilize India’s large manufacturing capacity for the production of approved COVID-19 vaccines.

A Foundation for Further Growth

Today, the U.S.-India partnership is on firm footing and poised for more progress. As the Biden Administration engages with India and the Indo-Pacific region, the achievements of the past four years give it a strong hand to play. The Biden Administration will likely make India a foreign policy priority, given the range of U.S. interests involved and the past experiences of key officials on Biden’s leadership team. Extensive people-to-people ties, anchored by approximately 4 million Indian Americans, provide popular support for both governments to drive the relationship forward.


The U.S.-India partnership is on firm footing and poised for more progress.

Several successful policies of recent years should be continued and further developed. The concept of the Indo-Pacific has proven useful in defining and organizing this critical region. While the United States, India, Japan and Australia have played leading roles in promoting the Indo-Pacific, others in Europe and Southeast Asia have come to embrace it, with only China and Russia opposing it. Abandoning this concept would send a worrying signal to India and the broader region. It is therefore encouraging that Biden’s National Security Council has created the position of Indo-Pacific Coordinator, filled it with an experienced hand and consistently referred to the importance of the Indo-Pacific in its policy pronouncements.

The Quad format has allowed the region’s leading democracies to hold close consultations and provide leadership for the Indo-Pacific. This endeavor should be given further form and substance. The Biden Administration has already begun to do this by holding the first-ever Quad Summit in mid-March. The leaders of Australia, India, Japan and the United States issued a Joint Statement emphasizing their shared vision for a region that is “free, open, inclusive, healthy, anchored by democratic values, and unconstrained by coercion.” They pledged to work together on issues ranging from the COVID-19 pandemic to maritime security to quality infrastructure development to counterterrorism. And they formed three expert-level working groups – on vaccines, critical and emerging-technologies and climate.

Next steps should include normalizing cooperation at all levels among Quad diplomats, defense officials and technical experts. These interactions could also extend beyond governments to include business councils, think tank and NGO experts, public health professionals and technology leaders. Engagements should selectively include officials and experts from other countries. The objective should be to construct a web of connections that would provide stability and prosperity for the Indo-Pacific.

The 2+2 Ministerial also proved to be a constructive mechanism to advance U.S.-India ties, and it should not be neglected even as the Quad further expands its activities. The United States and India should build on the framework developed in the last few years of defense agreements, military exercises and liaison officers to work toward joint defense planning and cooperative military operations. The Biden Administration will surely continue advocacy for Indian acquisition of U.S. defense equipment, including fighter jets, that can strengthen India’s capabilities and its interoperability with U.S. forces.

Issues on the Horizon

There are also potential challenges that the Biden Administration and its Indian counterparts will face. India’s impressive economic growth in recent decades provided vibrancy for the bilateral relationship. However, as with virtually all countries, India was hit badly by the COVID-19 pandemic and will take some time to return to strong growth. Even before the pandemic, the Indian economy was slowing down, and there were increased frustrations in the bilateral trade relationship, including growing restrictions in India on market access and the free flow of data.

India’s broader approach to international trade relationships is in flux. After seven years of negotiations, the Indian government withdrew from joining the multilateral Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. Indian officials have also expressed skepticism about the benefits of their existing free-trade arrangements. And since the pandemic, the Indian government has emphasized the policy of “Atmanirbhar Bharat,” or “Self-Reliant India.”


Since the pandemic, the Indian government has emphasized the policy of “Atmanirbhar Bharat,” or

“Self-Reliant India.”

According to Indian officials, this policy is designed to reduce critical dependencies on China, broaden India’s manufacturing base and increase domestic employment. It remains to be seen what effect this policy will have on India’s global engagement and growth, and whether it will reduce the ballast in the bilateral relationship provided by strong commercial ties. If India’s economy becomes more closed, the Biden Administration will likely lower the level of ambition in trade talks, but it should also seek to insulate the impact of trade frictions on the broader relationship.

Another issue that could affect the growth of the relationship is India’s continued emphasis on “strategic autonomy.” This policy drives India to avoid alliances and maintain strong relations with a diverse set of countries, including through procurement of military hardware. Deploying potentially incompatible equipment from a range of suppliers may weaken the ability of India’s armed forces to operate effectively in modern conflicts or to coordinate with friendly forces, such as those of the United States. India may also find the U.S. defense establishment less willing to sell its most sophisticated equipment to India if there are concerns about compromising U.S. technology due to the Russian equipment in India’s inventory. These worries come on top of the fact that procurements of Russian equipment, such as the S-400 missile defense system, could trigger U.S. sanctions under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act.

Accordingly, if current threats to India’s security continue, there is good reason for India to build closer operating relationships with a smaller circle of trusted, like-minded partners, including the United States. The Biden Administration should welcome this development.

While neither the United States nor India would want an India-China conflict, it is incumbent upon responsible leaders in Washington and New Delhi to prepare for such scenarios. Among other issues, the Biden Administration should plan, in cooperation with India, on how it would provide defense and political support in these circumstances.

India’s approach to energy and the environment could also have an impact on bilateral ties, especially given the Biden Administration’s focus on climate change. During his campaign, Biden announced that he would “challenge every other country to up the ante on climate commitments,” including the need to more aggressively reduce reliance on coal and other fossil fuels.

As part of the Paris Agreement, India pledged to dramatically increase its use of renewable energy – to 450 gigawatts by 2030. Yet, as a developing country, India has limited resources to adopt cleaner technologies in the near term and will likely still require significant quantities of fossil fuels. In fact, India is the number-two consumer of coal in the world, relying on it for 56 percent of its primary energy mix.

The Biden Administration should appreciate India’s energy needs and continue to support U.S. fossil-fuel exports to India, which have increased significantly in recent years. However, if the Biden team is unwilling to accommodate India’s situation, it should provide incentives for India to alter its energy mix.

A final issue relates to social and political dynamics within India. U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris was critical of India’s Kashmir policy when she was a senator, commenting on “human rights abuses” in Kashmir and the need for the United States to be ready “to intervene if the situation demands.” In addition, the Biden campaign’s website had stated that candidate Biden was “disappointed by the measures that the government of India has taken” on the Citizenship Amendment Act, which provided accelerated citizenship for certain persecuted minorities, not including Muslims, from three of India’s neighboring countries.

Indians bristle at outside comments or interventions regarding their internal affairs. Moreover, many Indians see the United States as falling short of its ideals in recent years, so they find such criticism somewhat hypocritical. That should not stop the Biden team from expressing support for India’s own democratic values and traditions. But to be most effective, the Biden Administration will need to be selective in calibrating the balance between stating concerns publicly and reserving some constructive criticisms for private conversation.

Confidence about the Future of U.S.-India Ties

The Biden Administration inherits a U.S.-India partnership that is strong, positive and on an upward trajectory. When one steps back and looks at where the United States and India were 20 years ago and where they are today, the amount of progress and achievement is impressive. Contrary to the conventional wisdom about the damaging impact of the Trump Administration’s foreign policy on allies and partners, its actions in regard to this

relationship amount to a success story.

Leaders in the United States and India, with support from their publics, recognize that getting this relationship right is important for both countries and for a free and open Indo-Pacific region. Despite some challenging issues on the horizon, the Biden Administration will undoubtedly build on the accomplishments of its predecessor, as has each recent U.S. Administration in conjunction with Indian counterparts, to ensure the continued growth of this vital partnership.


AMBASSADOR KENNETH JUSTER recently completed his service as the 25th

U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of India (2017-2021). He previously served in the U.S. government as Deputy Assistant to the President for International Economic Affairs, on both the National Security Council and the National Economic Council (2017), Under Secretary of Commerce (2001-2005), Counselor (Acting) of the State Department (1992-1993), and Deputy and Senior Advisor to Deputy Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger (1989-1992). As Under Secretary of Commerce, he co-founded the U.S.-India High Technology Cooperation Group and was a key architect of the Next Steps in Strategic Partnership initiative between the United States and India. In the private sector, Juster has been a partner at the global investment firm Warburg Pincus (2010-2017), a senior executive at (2005-2010), and a senior partner at the law firm Arnold & Porter. For his service as Ambassador, he received the State Department’s Distinguished Service Award, the Defense Department’s Distinguished Public Service Award, the Director of National Intelligence’s Exceptional Service Award, and the Energy Department’s Excellence Award. Juster holds a law degree from the Harvard Law School, a master’s degree in Public Policy from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, and a Bachelor of Arts degree in Government from Harvard College.


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