The Biden administration’s emerging China policy, framed around strategic competition, will be a "whole-of-government approach" wherein “virtually every team in the National Security Council, from technology to global health to international economics, will incorporate China into their work.” A keystone of this strategy, designed both to reestablish American leadership in the global order and as a distinct rebuke of the Trump administration’s isolationist and transactional approach, is to leverage American allies and partners.
Thus, the evolution of U.S.-China relations under the Biden administration will guide and shape its relations with allies and partners: the trajectory of those relationships will likely depend on how they fit into strategic competition with China. A key partner in this effort will be India. Although not a formal ally, India is central to the Indo-Pacific strategy by playing an increasingly important role in balancing China. Nonetheless, despite an increasingly strained relationship with Beijing, New Delhi is hesitant and unlikely to fully align with the United States. Given the competitive trajectory of U.S.-China relations, a key challenge for the Biden administration will be managing its partnership with India without limiting that partnership to the paradigm of competition with China.
China-India relations under an evolving Biden Foreign Policy
As the Biden administration configures its China strategy, China and India recently announced the beginnings of a disengagement process from a prolonged border standoff on their largely un-demarcated Line of Actual Control (LAC). June 2020 saw the first troop casualties from a border standoff between China and India since 1975, and it was only after nine rounds of commander-level talks, freezing Himalayan weather forestalling forward movement through winter, and few likely options for what would be considered a successful crisis outcome, did both sides agree to take initial steps towards disengagement – a prolonged process that will almost certainly leave underlying tensions unresolved.
In fact, Indian Minister of External Affairs Jaishankar asserted, for the first time in January, that managing the border is a prerequisite for amending the larger Sino-Indian bilateral relationship. Border disputes have existed since the two countries emerged as modern nation-states in the late 1940s, but have been traditionally de-linked from other facets of the relationship. In contrast to past standoffs, most recently on the Doklam plateau in 2017, the prolonged nature and severity of this standoff have shifted the norm of managing territorial issues and bilateral ties in separate domains. While two Xi-Modi summits in 2018 sought to reorient the broader relationship, it is unlikely that China and India will strengthen their underlying relationship without first solving – or at least making progress on – the border dispute.
Chinese reporting and scholarship intrinsically ties India’s behavior on the border to its relationship with the United States. Analysts have suggested that India is at best, emboldened by the Indo-Pacific strategy to contain China, or at worst, specifically acting at the behest of the United States. To be sure, the United States does likely welcome Indian efforts to balance China on its western border – it has increasingly encouraged India to assume a larger burden-sharing role, particularly in the maritime domain. But, India’s traditional posture of “strategic autonomy” means it will not, for the foreseeable future, fully align with the United States and is hesitant to preclude all future cooperation with China. Nonetheless, the current dynamic suggests that first, Chinese analysts have increasingly given up on trying to “win” India over from the United States, and secondly, believe that India is operating with tacit approval and emboldenment from the United States.
U.S.-India relations in a Competitive Indo-Pacific
As U.S-China competition has increased, it has correlated with closer U.S.-India relations (including under the Trump administration). The Biden Administration has indicated a continuation of strengthening the U.S.-India partnership, as demonstrated by President Biden’s February 8th phone call with Narendra Modi, along with several other calls between top key officials, such as India’s External Affairs Minister Jaishankar and U.S. Secretary of State Tony Blinken, Indian Defense Minister Rajnath Singh and U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, and Indian National Security Advisor Ajit Doval and U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan. Additionally, Biden maintains a well-established history with India throughout his political career, and many elites who orbit the administration publicly recognize the potential value of India in its strategic competition with China.
Yet, this may also be the key challenge for those formulating the U.S.-India partnership: the relationship will likely be calculated through the premise of competition with China. Biden’s approach will not only lean on bilateral relations, but also multilateral institutions such as the Quadrilateral dialogue, in which India is a key partner. While the Quad has been an important tool for democracies in the Indo-Pacific to coalesce around an increasingly aggressive China, it structurally does little to address India’s most pressing concerns by neither providing assistance on its continental border nor a promising economic alternative to China-led trade arrangements.
Currently, it is in the defense domain where U.S. and Indian interests vis-à-vis China most clearly overlap. But this also means confronting the litany of issues that could mire U.S.-India relations in other domains—specifically its increasingly illiberal domestic institutions, the effect its constraining economy could have on future cooperation, and its enduring ties with nations like Russia—may be overlooked in order to first deal with the China problem. This approach will inherently narrow the aperture through which the U.S.-China-India triangle exists. If the U.S.-India partnership continues to develop primarily under the paradigm of competition with China, it may be hard to create maneuvering space in other domains.
While the Biden administration may attempt to identify some overlapping issue sets of cooperation with China – likely on a small (and increasingly narrow) range of global problems as climate change and nonproliferation – a whole-of-government approach that places allies and nontraditional partners at the forefront will restrict the regions that the United States and China can co-exist, such as in South Asia. This approach may indeed be deemed the most effective for the United States to prevail in a long-term competition with China, but as a consequence may harden the conditions of cooperation with those partners such as India.