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Map of South Asia, with India in the foreground. Photo by Tatiana Rodriguez on Unsplash.

Earlier this week, Ronak Desai, Research Associate at the Mittal Institute, moderated a discussion between Ambassador Nirupama Rao, Former Foreign Secretary of India, and Vipin Narang, Associate Professor of Political Science at MIT, as they explored how the potential outcomes of the US presidential election may impact the region of South Asia.

Throughout the webinar, the discussion delved into the current state of US–South Asia affairs, frequently turned to the presence of China in the region and how varying US tactics vis-à-vis China could impact the countries of South Asia, and hypothesized about the various US–South Asia relationships if a Biden Administration were to win the election.

Recent US–South Asia Affairs

Desai began by describing the backdrop of recent events that have occurred in South Asia as the US election campaigns come to an end. “South Asia is a part of the world where things happen quickly,” he said. Just a few days ago, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Defense Mark Esper joined Indian Minister of Defense Rajnath Singh and Minister of External Affairs Dr. S. Jaishankar for the third annual US–India 2+2 Ministerial Dialogue in New Delhi. During the visit, they discussed collaboration in vaccine and therapeutic development, as well as increased cooperation on energy and space.

Secretaries Pompeo and Esper are now heading to Sri Lanka and the Maldives to meet with additional counterparts in those nations. “This comes against a background, of course, of tensions between India and China, and a fairly violent and bloody conflict that erupted back in August,” Desai said, “and in Bangladesh, we’re seeing an increased focus on it playing a greater role in the US’s Indo-Pacific strategy.”

Considering the “China Factor”

Would a change of administration in the United States make a difference in South Asia? For Ambassador Rao, it all comes down to what she calls the “China Factor.” The US election is occurring against the background of a crisis with China and the strong presence it is asserting in the South Asian region, impacting Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, India, and the Maldives, and it will depend on how the respective administrations will address this factor. “China is the dragon in the room, as far as South Asia is concerned. It has become much more of a visible presence, and it’s making its impact felt economically and developmentally,” she said. And if the US, too, experiences continued confrontation with China, these impacts will be felt all across the South Asian region.

“Diplomacy is not all about running up debts with China, which is what has happened with a lot of these countries for their development to take place. I think [the countries of South Asia] do understand that, but it’s a complicated situation. Take a country like Nepal: it has to achieve a geopolitical balance between China to the north and India to the South, and if the United States were to [intervene], it’s a classic three-body problem,” said Ambassador Rao.

Narang also weighed in on the influence of China, specifically looking at its relationship with India. “China is India’s neighbor, and in terms of vertical supply chain ingredients and dependencies for pharmaceuticals and electronics, China’s an unavoidable partner, and it’s perfectly understandable… why India would want to at least maintain a vibrant trading and political relationship with China,” said Narang. “But the fact is that China has become more aggressive, and this year has taken bites out of claimed Indian territory. Some of these developments have clarified for both India and the United States that their partnership can deepen in ways that are beneficial and in both countries’ interests.”

A Biden Administration and the US–South Asia Relationship

For the India–US relationship, at least, the panelists agreed that the partnership would persist under a Biden Administration. “If Biden becomes president, I expect a continuation of the very strong alignment of interests between India and the US, both in the region and globally,” Ambassador Rao said.

While Biden will introduce his own style to the relationship, and may have a different approach to issues like trade and immigration, the partnership will remain strong. “One advantage of Biden winning is that he doesn’t have to do a huge repair [with India] in the way he would have to with Europe and Asia,” noted Narang. “Trump has disrupted relations with almost every other country, where it’s better to be outside of America’s formal alliance structure right now, because there is a lot of repairing to be done. In terms of continuity, India has been one of Trump’s bright spots. Even under Trump, the US stayed the course with India.”

Taking a broader view of the South Asian region, Narang looked at the changes that could come forth with a member of the Democratic Party in power in the US. “There are elements within the Democratic Party, for example, that are very concerned about human rights, the domestic legislation in Kashmir, the detention of legitimate opposition leaders. It opens the space for a Democratic administration to focus more on human rights and values, and to potentially raise red flags if that continues in the region. There may be this variation, where a Biden administration may focus more on democracy than a Trump administration would. And so there may be an impact, depending on who wins the election,” he said.

One important takeaway, regardless of who wins the US election, is the importance of the current situation in Afghanistan, with airstrikes and attacks continuing despite the ongoing peace talks. “The situation in Afghanistan is going to demand the attention of any administration that is coming in. It’s going to perhaps be the primary topic, as far as South Asia is concerned,” Ambassador Rao hypothesized.

And what about the China factor? A new Biden Administration may try to engage with China, through competition or cooperation — or both. But how should the countries of South Asia prepare for that? “Ultimately, we can expect a lot of the same, moving forward,” said Desai. “[There] seems to be a very familiar pattern where the US will try to engage Chinese leadership, they try to strike all sorts of bargains and pronouncements, and that ultimately fails. Trump went in with a similar expectation, but learned very quickly that that wasn’t going to work. That may set him apart from a potential Biden administration, which has profound implications for folks in South Asia, as he’s made the US position on China very clear.”

Only time will tell which specific nuances and contours will characterize the US–South Asia relationship during the next US presidential administration, regardless of who wins. Moving forward, though, the panel agreed that the influence of China will continue to impact the US–South Asia relationship, and Afghanistan will continue to be a major concern to the United States.