From ‘in-sourcing’ to red-flagging on rights, Indo-US ties heading into a squall

Joe Biden Inauguration: See Photos as Biden, Harris Sworn In | Time
[Biden and family walking down Pennsylvania Avenue after the President’s swearing-in ceremony]

Times of India newspaper in its Friday feature — ‘Times Faceoff’ — in which experts with opposing views debate an issue, the former Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran and I had differing perspectives on the topic ‘Will Indo-US ties improve under the Biden Administration’. It was published in today’s edition, at


Every time there’s a change of government in the United States, there is kneejerk reflex here. The incoming Administration is judged trivially by how many Indian-Americans are appointed to high positions. Because President Joe Biden has over 30 of them in important posts compared to Donald Trump, who had less than a dozen, Biden is deemed good for India! More seriously, the theme of two partner democracies, their values and visions in sync, cooperating to strategically constrain China is trotted out. But things aren’t that simple.  

     American politics is historically divided into two schools and “styles” — paranoid and liberal. The former is angry, nativist, and exclusionary; the latter more open-minded, inclusivist and inclined to engage with the outside world, and are represented by Trump and Biden, respectively. Usually, US policies reflect aspects of both corpora of thought. Thus, Biden is as intent, as Trump ever was, for instance, to revive the industrial base at home and generate employment by getting American and international companies that sell their goods in the US to relocate their manufacturing plants to America, and to incentivize “in-sourcing” as a means of preventing well-paying jobs in high-technology sectors from migrating abroad. This means that for Biden easing up on the H1B visa channel benefitting Indian techies that the Narendra Modi government has been pushing is not a priority; legalizing the status of 11 million undocumented workers in the US, mostly from Latin America, is.

     The democratic fellowship thesis, moreover, works better as rhetoric, not when Indian and US national interests clash. Sure, the four actions by the Biden Administration targeting China – inviting the Taiwanese envoy  to the inauguration, confirming Trump’s deal with Taipei for 100 Harpoon anti-ship missiles and a bunch of mobile extended range land-attack missiles plus reconnaissance and surveillance drones and sensors worth $4.6 billion, deploying a nuclear aircraft carrier task group to the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea, and labelling the Chinese pogrom against the Muslim Uyghurs in Xinjiang “genocide”, are reassuring. Intended or not, they distract Beijing from focusing on Ladakh.

     But juxtapose these moves against the new defence secretary retired General Lloyd Austin’s call for “strategic patience” with China and similar conciliatory noises emanating from elsewhere in the Biden Administration and the conclusion is unavoidable that because the US has lots to lose in actual military hostilities, it may indulge in show of force but will happily fight the Chinese to the last Indian, the last Taiwanese, or the last Japanese. At least Trump was honest in advertising America’s unreliability as ally or strategic partner when he counselled Tokyo to have its own nuclear arsenal and to fight its own fight with China for the disputed Senkaku Islands.

     Following that logic, an Indian inventory of tested and proven high-yield thermonuclear armaments obtained by resuming nuclear tests coupled with the threat of contingent first use will permanently neuter the China threat. And, transferring strategic-warheaded missiles to countries on China’s periphery as belated payback for Beijing’s nuclear missile arming of Pakistan in the 1980s, will effectively secure the Asian littoral and offshore ramparts. Except, the Biden foreign policy aims to further non-proliferation goals, which will prevent India from doing any of this, and to realize the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which will result in Washington pressuring India to sign it. As India has all but abjured nuclear testing courtesy the 2005 civilian nuclear deal with the US, Delhi is half way there already; whence cajoling it to walk that last mile won’t be difficult.

After all, the US knows the Indian government buckles easily under flattery or pressure and Indian negotiators habitually give up a lot in return for little as long as India is patted for being a “responsible state” and the carrot of an albeit non-veto permanent seat in the UN Security Council is dangled.

     The danger, however, is greatest on the Human Rights front because the charge of Muslims and Dalits being systematically discriminated against in India resonates with Biden’s thinking about empowering the hitherto disenfranchised minorities and the underclass in America. The influential Democrat Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal, whom foreign minister S. Jaishankar refused to meet with last year, has frequently flagged the issue of human rights abuses by Indian government agencies. Laws in BJP-ruled states relating to beef eating, “love jihad”, etc. are grist for her mill.

     Indo-US relations are heading into a squall, the Indian government better batten down.

About Bharat Karnad

Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, he was Member of the (1st) National Security Advisory Board and the Nuclear Doctrine-drafting Group, and author, among other books of, 'Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security: The Realist Foundations of Strategy', 'India's Nuclear Policy' and most recently, 'Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)'. Educated at the University of California (undergrad and grad), he was Visiting Scholar at Princeton University, University of Pennsylvania, the Shanghai Institutes of International Studies, and Henry L. Stimson Center, Washington, DC.
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26 Responses to From ‘in-sourcing’ to red-flagging on rights, Indo-US ties heading into a squall

  1. Amit says:

    Indo US relations ‘may’ head into a squall – don’t think it’s a given. Agree with your assessment that there are challenging differences in the relationship and about Pramila JayPaul (nasty!). But most articles I have read in Indian newspapers have not gushed about Biden either or the fact that 30 Indians are in his administration. No one cares and rightly so.
    Agree with your statement on conducting a thermo nuclear test. If the US goes soft on China India must conduct an ‘in your face’ test. But at the same time it’s high time India also signed some major trade agreements with the US and EU. Frankly, all the sloganeering about make in India and atmanirbharta is getting tiring! Compete with the world, become richer and then talk big. But there are enough Indians in India who will make that very difficult to achieve.

    • Avatar says:

      @Amit — Make India rich by not Making in India? And by buying overpriced American goods?

      • Amit says:

        Doing trade with America does not mean buying their overpriced goods. And Make in India has been a failure so far. Good luck trying to get rich like that! I’m no economic expert, but both your statements are questionable economically.

  2. Sankar says:

    “… abjured nuclear testing courtesy the 2005 civilian nuclear deal with the US, Delhi is half way there already …” –

    Of course, but I am afraid there is not much differentiation that can be done to-date between (past) MMS and (present) Modi in the issue.

    “… the US knows the Indian government buckles easily under flattery or pressure and Indian negotiators habitually give up a lot in return for little … ” –

    This goes without saying as the latest news from EAM testifies:

    ” S Jaishankar on Thursday set out an eight-point framework for steps China needs to take to
    to repair bilateral ties with India, which, he said, cannot carry on “ ..

    @Professor Karnad: I can read from the news that Delhi is bending backwards to please China now and is ready to reconcile India with China’s grabbing India’s sovereign territory by “salami-slicing” as is going on for sometime (even after 2014). What is the reason for this spineless policy and who is the culprit for driving this?

    • The China-appeasing MEA establishment-China Study Circle/Group stays, but PMs do sign off on policies and cannot escape responsibility.

      • Gaurav Tyagu says:

        A very good question by Sankar and an excellent, precise answer by Professor Karnad.

        The question arises, why would Indian bureaucrats (MEA etc.) appease China?

        Everyone in India is well aware of the high egos of these officials. They yield enormous clout and power. Why don’t they use it and act tough on China?

        Appeasement is largely done due to fear or greed. Indian bureaucrats don’t have any reason to be fearful.

        Inspite of numerous shortcomings, India is still the third largest economy in the world in terms of PPP (Purchasing Power Parity) after China & USA.

        A logical analysis of the whole issue clearly reveals that the Chinese establishment has deeply penetrated the Indian bureaucracy through financial inducements.

  3. krishna soni says:

    Respected Sir@Professor Karnad should we not follow a policy of Ignorance toward US when the topics such as human rights,trade agreements,etc are considered,they cannot counter the chinese on their own in Asia they need allies like Japan,India,Taiwan ,it is they who need us we don’t need them ,should we use it as a benefit to turn the tables in our favour on such issues like human rights,trade agreements,etc emphasising our hard power.Please correct me if I am wrong .

  4. V.Ganesh says:

    Reciprocity is the basis of all relationships. India should payback in kind to everyone who interferes in India’s internal affairs irrespective of whether it’s the USA or China. And for an added measure, tell them to get lost.

    Unfortunately, many Indians are hallucinating that since some number of Indians have made it to the Biden Administration, India will benefit from that. As if these Indian-Americans have taken two oaths, one to officially serve America and another to unofficially serve India.

    Last but not the least, even though it is not reposted in this blog, as long as India has people like Shyam Saran who pontificate that the current Indian [Modi] government should keep its ideological Right-wing preferences to itself, India will always go to the dogs. Saran, et al, wouldn’t have the guts to tell US officials to keep their ideological preferences to their US government, then, why should any GOI keep its ideological preferences to itself.

    I just hope Biden Administration ends quickly and Trump comes back to power.

  5. Avatar says:

    How come most of foreign secretaries become spokesmen of the US and the West rather than fight for India?

  6. Sunil kumar says:

    Well, India is not self-reliant in defence technology, economy is doing badly, and education is nothing to crow about. We have betrayed Russia and the US is an unreliable friend and a very expensive supplier. We are not willing to test thermonuclear device or arm China’s neighbours with Brahmos. How can we fight China? Hence our meek acquiescence. As far as people are concerned, religious bigotry, Nehru bashing, and ineffective cross-LOC operations are enough.

  7. nileshko says:

    Should the GOI’s response to the far-right Muslims be any different from that of biden’s vis-a-vis white supremacist?
    If the Robert Byrd protege insists that GOI keep violating human rights of Indians to protect the far-right Muslim supremacist, then Indians must hang the plank of fascism around the neck of every Biden regime official that comes to India.
    I’m sure, Indians could be gathered in huge numbers to oppose this American Reich.

  8. krishna soni says:

    Respected sir@Professor Karnad though my question is out of the context,I had watched your previous interview at the oval power talk(2015) and the right people (2018)with the swarajya today where you discuss Modi’s foreign policy praising him in the former and criticising him in the later.I had certain doubts on the topic to be clarified and would be grateful if you do the job,in 2018 you had criticised modi for not delivering the promises he had promised in the 2014 elections like not setting the stage for the make in india program,lca tejas defense contract issue,kashmir problem,and a weak Indian foreign policy toward US and China and not breaking the socialist bondages of the economy.My question to you is that whether the situation had changed in 2020 like the steps he had taken in the past 2 years article 370 and 35a revocation, the air strike,a proposed nrc to counter bangladeshi immigrants,the indian army response to the chinese during the current standoff capturing the heights of kailsah range( lost in 1962) though not up to that mark as you mentioned but far better than the previous governments ,the aatmanirbhar package,83 lca tejas defense contract to hal,imposing ban on101 military items so as to be prepared as per made in india and removing restrictions on the fdi limit in defense sector and a plan to hike defense buget enormously this year,the disinvestment of psu and other economic reforms to break the socialist bondages of the economy are good if not the best and in the direction towards making India a great power.I hope you reply to my comment ,I am not as such a Modi ‘bhakt’ but yes I like the works he had done in the past years,I am not a expert on this matter so please present your point of view on the topic.

    • Was more hopeful in 2015 that Modi will follow through on his 2014 poll promises. By 2018 many of these hopes had dissipated. The BJP govt’s successes have been small compared to the scale of problems the country faces. It required radical measures not, by and large, cautious incrementalism. In the external realm, India’s over-lean towards the US is eroding India’s diplomatic room for maneuver — the sort of things I dicussed at length in my 2018 book ‘Staggering Forward’ and in my other writings since then.

      • Amit says:

        I have not read your book yet Sir, but I’m trying to understand your position better. India has China and Pakistan as enemies, Russia won’t align with India as China is economically and politically more beneficial, India cannot effectively lead the middle power states in SE and East Asia to manage China and without a crisis at its doors, India cannot solve it’s problems well. In such a situation how does having the US as an ally be harmful? Not saying over lean, but until we become a bigger economy why not use the US as best as we can? Or is your point that India needs to make bold changes so that we don’t have to over lean on the US? Sometimes the written word is not as effective as the spoken, but would like to understand your position better.

      • In my last book ‘Staggering’ I analyzed India’s ‘creeper vine’ foreign policy leaning on one bg power and then the other and unwilling or unable to stand up on its own for itself. And too conformist to take drastic steps, make radical changes, to correct the situation.

  9. krishna soni says:

    Respect sir@Professor Karnad should India intervene in the internal matters of Myanmar like we did in 1987 in Sri Lanka (“though it was a strategic failure”) in the near future to prevent a military coup as a strategy to counter the Chinese influence in Myanmar and emphasize our act east policy more aggresively and help the democracy prevail in the nation in exchange of Indian interests like forcing myanmar to withrdaw from BRI, and a military base for India in Myanmar.

    • India should work with the Myanmarese Generals who are the real power and, who, incidentally, are inherently suspicious of China.

      • Gaurav Tyagi says:

        I have an interesting story to tell. Last year around a month before Myanmar’s elections. I was approached by a Chinese on my Wechat account. He said that a Chinese contact of mine has provided him with my number.

        This Chinese guy said that since you (I) are a freelance writer. We have an exclusive scoop for you.

        He forwarded me a long message. The crux of which was that Corona Virus was developed in a US lab as a biological weapon and most of the team working on it has been assassinated by the CIA, only 1 woman (Indian origin American) from the group has survived by running away from US and is hiding somewhere in India. She wishes to tell this true story about Coronavirus Pandemic to the world.

        I asked the Chinese guy, well why don’t you folks publish it in your Global Times. This is sensational stuff.

        The guy started beating around the bush. I persisted until the Chinese finally revealed that the main reason for them insisting on the story being published on a Myanmarese main stream newspaper/news site was due to the approaching election in Myanmar, where both USA as well as China were interfering heavily in favor of their candidates.

        The Chinese side was ready to offer a good amount to me provided I manage to get that story published in a Myanmar mainstream print/online media.

        Sadly, I don’t have any connections in Myanmar so, I lost out on making a few bucks 😆

      • Gaurav Tyagi says:

        Professor Karnad, there has been a military coup in Myanmar;

        You say that the Myanmarese Army Generals are suspicious of China. Does it mean that India has instigated this coup?

      • Reltions between the Aung San Su Kyi government and the military has been strained from the start even though the former has striven to give as littgle offence as possible to the generals. India has been careful and aware of the military’s weight been nice to it.

  10. Ram says:

    @Professor Karnad,

    This may seem a bit off the subject. While there is a mention of nuclear weapons, I was wondering if we have passed the sell by date for the nuclear weapons as a deterrence? Is this really serving our purpose or acting as a drag on our conventional military force?

    The nature of disputes we have with Pakistan and China may involve a skirmish but never an existential crisis to justify use of nuclear weapons. The way the government responded to the recent Ladakh crisis (where the aggressor is not even named officially), shouldn’t we have been more confident to take on China?

    Examples of a Chinese submarine docking in Colombo in 2014, Doklam in 2017. Pakistan Air Force breaching our borders in broad day light in Feb 2019 (considered an act of war) and finally the Ladakh crisis shows the limitations of our conventional military strength, which is unprepared for escalations despite us having nuclear weapons. If we did not possess nuclear weapons, would we have acted differently or been more aggressive, similar to how Vietnam engages with China?

    I believe the nuclear weapons would only add value when there is sufficient deterrence with the conventional methods and escalation to the nuclear threshold being an exception to the norm. Our defence mandarins are puffed up with false sense of security by solely relying on nuclear weapons and expensive toys (off the shelf defence purchases). By regularly boasting about the nuclear weapons ( a maximalist approach), they have ignored the economic, industrial, and military and finally diplomatic spade work required to be considered a formidable conventional military force to avoid such recurring embarrassments. This government had time on its hands and a strong mandate to reverse the tide. However, it has squandered the opportunity.

    With the growing asymmetry of conventional power with China and the government having accepted the current situation as a fate accompli with no serious costs incurred on China (except cosmetic ones like banning apps and duties on imports), we may come across as a paper tiger despite the nuclear weapons and lose relevance in the years to come. This situation is worse than a war – akin to the US making life miserable for Iran, N. Korea (another nuclear power) or Venezuela just by use of sanctions and not fighting an actual conventional war, let alone a nuclear one.

    • As I have long argued, nuclear weapons will become obsolete when a more fearsome and lethal armament becomes widely available. And from my time in the Finance Commission 25 years have advocated a separate strategic security budget different from the normal conventional defence allocations. But who in GOI listens to forward looking solutions?!

  11. PRATIK KUMAR says:

    Sir a general question, not from this topic. Reports are that India is going to spend Rs 1.3 lakh crores on 114 fighters jets from outside. But wouldn’t it be better if we focus on Tejas Mk2, instead of importing super costly jets from outside? Its indigenous, highly advanced, and will also great huge job opportunities.

  12. Gaurav Tyagi says:

    @ Pratik Kumar, imagine the commission on 1.3 Lakh Crores in the PM care fund. Who will give the commission on indigenous fighter jets.

  13. PRATIK KUMAR says:

    Sir what do you say about this defence budget? Capital expenditure has increased, which is a good sign, but overall defence budget is a disappointment. I agree that there’s pressure on economy, but we should have given more for capital part (on indigenous platforms).

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