Why 2020 turned out to be a good year for India-US ties

Gautam Chintamani
·5 min read

Few would have believed that India would emerge as a significant player in the shaping of the new world in a year that saw a presidential election in the United States, the resignation of the entire Russian government, constant civil unrest in France, the unleashing of a global pandemic, and a collective calling out of China's worldwide belligerence.

2020 has transformed the geopolitics of the world to such an extent that not just Asia but the world is now looking at India as a global power that would not only offer a counter to China but also lead the way. In this aspect, two factors, namely, standing up to China across the region and other areas of the world and a purple patch in its relationship with the US, have enhanced India’s positioning.

For many years political observers extolled the advantages or loss of having either a Democrat or a Republican president in power in the US.

With the opening of the economy in the early 1990s, this notion changed to suggest how neither made a difference in an Indian context as both political outfits in the US wanted to have good relations with India.

The personal camaraderie between President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Narendra Modi has set a new bar for the Indo-US ties. The visit of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo just days before the 3 November election underscored it.

Pompeo and then-defence Secretary Mark Esper were in New Delhi for the India-US 2+2 dialogue between the foreign and defence ministers of the two nations. The two also met the National Security Adviser, Ajit Doval and called on PM Modi.

The visit was vital for finalising the foundational agreement between the two defence systems Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA). Pertaining to geospatial intelligence, and sharing information on maps and satellite images for defence, the finalisation of BECA days before an election that could mark a change in the White House also suggested that the relations between the two countries had crossed a Rubicon.

Since 2013, there has been a marked increase in the way India and the United States have jointly operated. In 2015, then-President Barack Obama and PM Modi released a statement on the "US-India Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean Region", and India's arms trade with the US recorded a 550 percent increase between 2013-2017 period.

The way Trump administration took on China in terms of tariffs and the gradual but marked shift towards India in manufacturing, as well as geopolitical ties, has made it amply clear which way the wind is blowing.

There are enough indicators that this might continue despite Joe Biden and Kamala Harris' previous posturing when it came to India.

In the last few months, the Democratic VP candidate Harris had refrained from taking strong stands on Kashmir as she had in the past where she expressed to Kashmiris that "they are not alone in the world" and "we are keeping a track on the situation."

While the Electoral College in the US formalised Joe Biden's victory, he secured 306 votes that gave him the 270-vote majority needed to ensure the Presidency, the White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany commented that President Trump was still involved in ongoing litigation related to the election and the vote was "one step in the constitutional process."

The revived QUAD (The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue), the informal strategic forum between the United States, Japan, Australia and India that is also dubbed as the Asian NATO has also shaken China.

Additionally, similar to the Indo-US relations, India’s has rejigged its alliance with France with President Emmanuel Macron and Modi releasing the “Joint Strategic Vision of India-France Cooperation in the Indian Ocean Region” in 2018, and a 572 percent increase in arms import from France between 2013-17 has set the stage for the next era in geopolitics.

In a statement issued on 9 December, the Australian Ambassador to India Barry O'Farrell expressed faith that “only India can make enough Covid Vaccine for all.”

This was not surprising as Hyderabad already produces 33 per cent of global vaccines. O’Farrell and ambassadors and high commissioners of several countries had visited the key biotech companies -- Bharat Biotech and Biological E -- that are developing vaccines against the novel coronavirus.

In 2020, India recalibrated its position with traditional allies such as Russia, who after Defence Minister Rajnath Singh's September 2020 visit assured its 'no arms to Pakistan' policy and stood tall to adversaries like China during the border stand-off. It further cemented its ties with France and with the United States.

On 22 December, President Trump presented the highest honour of the United States, the Legion of Merit to PM Modi for his leadership in elevating strategic partnership of the two countries. This is yet another testimony to India’s emergence of as a global power. The citation also mentions how this India-US alliance is to address global challenges.

It’s also interesting to see that Trump extended the same honour to heads of states of fellow QUAD nations Japan and Australia. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was honoured with the Legion of Merit for ‘his leadership and vision for a free and open Indo-Pacific’ and Australian PM Scott Morrison for ‘his leadership in addressing global challenges and promoting collective security.’

Up until now, India remained outside the circle that decided the future of the world. One reason could be that India rarely looked at its overall interest as keenly as internal issues as a nation.

It has changed its perspective where it now operates on a top-down rather than the traditional bottom-up approach.