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On India, the US must think bigger

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Four foreign ministers met in Tokyo last week from the so-called “Quad” countries — the United States, India, Japan and Australia. This might be considered an unremarkable event except that just a few years ago, such a meeting never would have occurred for fear of offending Beijing.  

The acute concerns of these four democracies, however, over China’s aggressive actions this year — its bloody border clash with India, bullying of Vietnam and the Philippines and smothering of Hong Kong’s democracy — have revived the Quad and brought India and America together again in common cause.

The United States has enjoyed decades-long military treaty alliances with Japan and Australia. The fact that India has joined to form the Quad, not as a formal ally but major strategic partner, is advantageous for Washington and its strategy to limit China’s military push for power in the region.

At a time of deepening partisan divisions in the U.S. itself, the development of close strategic ties between Washington and Delhi is an anomaly enjoying near universal support among both Republicans and Democrats.  

In fact, for nearly two decades, every American president — Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump — has prioritized the expansion of ties with India. Bush’s historic Civil Nuclear Agreement was particularly important in paving the way for an open and vastly improved economic relationship between the two countries.  Obama and then-Vice President Joe Biden supported India for a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council.  

Trump has continued this policy. During his February 2020 state visit to India, he had a series of photo ops but failed to offer a compelling vision of the next steps in what should be one of the most important American global relationships for the decade ahead.  

The time has come for the U.S. and India to think more ambitiously about the future strategic partnership between the world’s two most important democracies. 

Militarily, the U.S. and India should deepen and accelerate their naval and air force cooperation in the Indian Ocean and Western Pacific. There is more the two also can do alongside Japan and Australia during the next year. The Quad’s aim should be to strengthen military cohesiveness among the four, to defend the rights of democracies and limit China’s military ambitions. The senior military commanders of each country ought to meet more frequently to transform the Quad into a more tightly integrated defense partnership.

Diplomatically, the Quad should develop into a multidimensional partnership beyond military priorities to provide, for example, greater development aid and infrastructure support to the countries of the region. Such talks have begun at the foreign minister level and should be extended to finance ministers and the international development agencies of the four. A priority goal should be joint opposition to Huawei and other Chinese firms gaining access to our sensitive communications networks.

In their own bilateral relationship, India and the U.S. must focus on clearing away obstacles to stronger economic ties. While two-way trade and investment have grown significantly during the past decade, there is much more that can be accomplished. U.S. companies are investing billions in India but often are denied fair and equal treatment when they compete with Indian firms. While India can be a difficult trade partner, the next president should, at a minimum, seek to finalize a long-overdue bilateral investment treaty. American companies large and small would benefit from it.   

On all-important technology cooperation in the digital age, Indian-Americans already lead some of America’s most powerful companies, such as Microsoft, Google and Adobe. The Trump administration’s decision to suspend all new H1B visas and its anti-immigrant rhetoric, however, has led many Indians to feel unwelcome in the U.S. Reversing this is key. India can be an important partner against China’s techno-authoritarianism in a new “Technology 10” group of democracies led by the U.S.

A final arena in which to write the next chapter of the U.S.-India partnership is diplomatic. Biden has proposed a Coalition of Democracies to stiffen resistance to the authoritarian power and self-confidence of China and Russia. India should be a charter member of such a group. In addition, the State Department should work much more closely with India in South Asia to counter Beijing’s bid for greater influence in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal and Myanmar. Further afield, the U.S. and India must continue to support the legal rights of the five claimants to the Spratly and Paracel Islands of the South China Sea against the blatantly illegal encroachment of the Chinese government.

Finally, as this important bilateral relationship between Washington and Delhi evolves, it will be important for both countries to reform and reinvigorate their own democracies.  The U.S. must confront racial injustice at home and repair a divisive, dysfunctional relationship between its two major political parties. India would be well advised to temper those who practice an often ugly Hindu nationalist agenda to the detriment of the country’s large Muslim minority.  

India and the U.S. will not be formal treaty allies and will disagree on important issues from time to time. But India’s rise to political, economic and military power in its region is of immense strategic importance to the U.S. It is in our interest to expand our work with India for the pivotal role we both will play in a free and open Indo-Pacific for the decades ahead.  

Nicholas Burns is a professor at the Harvard Kennedy School and faculty chair of the Future of Diplomacy Project. A career member of the U.S. Foreign Service, he served as under secretary of State for political affairs, U.S. ambassador to NATO and to Greece, and on the National Security Council staff under Presidents Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush. He is an adviser to Joe Biden’s presidential campaign. Follow him on Twitter @RNicholasBurns.

Anja Manuel, a former State Department diplomat, is a lecturer and research affiliate at Stanford University, director of the Aspen Strategy Group, and an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS). She is the author of “This Brave New World: India, China and the United States” and an adviser to Joe Biden’s presidential campaign. Follow her on Twitter @AnjaManuel1.

Tags Barack Obama Bill Clinton China aggression Donald Trump India–United States relations Joe Biden Quad US foreign policy

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