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US election seen from India: "Deteriorating US-China relationship is a good thing"

Art of man carrying the Indian flag in front of a map of India

Pramit Pal Chaudhuri is the foreign editor of the Hindustan Times, based in New Delhi. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Gabrielle Debinski: Is there a lot of focus in India right now on the US election?

PC: The focus on the US election in India at present is not that great. There has been coverage, obviously of the riots and the protests [against racial injustice]. President Trump's own, shall we say, eccentric statements do get a fair amount of coverage here, but otherwise, partly because of our present problems with China and the continuing problems with COVID-19, local media coverage definitely has been very internally and domestically focused.


The government of India is monitoring of course — as I presume most other governments are — what's happening in America. But I would argue that they are not overly concerned about results because there's a view, and I think seconded by people I've talked to in Washington, that there is a very broad bipartisan consensus in the United States regarding the importance of the Indo-US relationship.

GD: So the Indian government is generally confident that the close Indo-US relationship will continue regardless of who wins in November?

PC: In the broadest sense, yes. There are a number of issues which the governments, depending on who becomes president, will be different. For example, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is very concerned about climate, it has been one of his signature concerns as prime minister. Obviously, with Biden, he will be able to do a lot more than he would be able to with President Trump.

On trade, the Indian government is a strong supporter of the WTO and the multilateral trade system, and probably the biggest friction with Trump has been on the issue of trade and this presumably will be different under a President Biden.

But on the other hand, [the Indian government] has also been very broadly pleased with the fact that President Trump has taken on China aggressively, if sometimes a little incoherently.

The fact that he's been able to shock China so much, both on trade, or things like ripping apart the INF treaty, which India thought was an excellent move because of its importance for the strategic balance in the Indo-Pacific, were things that they saw that Trump did. And they are not clear in their mind yet that a Biden administration will take these issues as seriously — at least in the first year.

GD: Turning back to China — how is the India-China spat perceived, broadly speaking, by the Indian people? And is the growing US-China rivalry becoming a headache for the Indian government?

PC: The Indian government's goal with China is to have a certain, should we say, a modus vivendi, rather than to be friends. They don't expect to have a good relationship.

India has always had a tough line regarding China, for example, and Chinese investment. The total Chinese FDI into India today barely totals $8 billion. Which is basically almost nothing. That's been because of deliberate policies by the Indian government to keep Chinese investment out of the country.

So for them, if anything, a deteriorating US-China relationship is a good thing as far as India is concerned. Trump, in their view, was willing to break China, literally, in an attempt to recalibrate the relationship.

Too often they felt that American officials privately say, "yes, China's terrible" and then say, "but we can't do X, Y and Z."

In Trump's case, it's "China is terrible and I'm going to do X, Y and Z." And the Indians are very pleased that this was happening though they're not necessarily, should I say, all in praise of the tactics that he used.

GD: Looking back at 2016, how much would you say the outcome of the US election affected your country?

PC: Well, the Indians were as surprised as anybody else when Trump was elected. They had a very good relationship with both Bill and Hillary Clinton and had assumed that they would pick up a lot of the strands that the bilateral relationship already had based even on their previous experiences with Bill Clinton.

I think with Trump, they came to recognize one thing which they hadn't understood —which perhaps many other countries hadn't understood — that the deep cleavages in the United States, particularly on the issue of equity, had delegitimized the American establishment and that they had not realized how deeply that had occurred.

They were also surprised, and continue to be worried about, the degree to which the Republican Party has turned, as the Americans would say, on a dime, on two key issues: immigration and trade. The Republicans have in recent times at least been the party of free trade and the party of immigration. And Trump obviously turned his party against both of those issues.

The [Indian government] now recognizes they have to invest a lot more in both sustaining the international trading system, as well as working more closely with the Americans on things like immigration, which they've sort of left to the American political system.

America issues more visas to Indians than they do to any other country in the world other than Mexico. Almost a million visas are issued every year to Indians, and the Indian-American community has expanded at an enormous rate.

Before Trump came, it was rising at about 20-25 percent a year, and it has now become by far the largest, wealthiest Indian diaspora anywhere, far surpassing the diaspora that exists, for example, in England. So until now, it's just been taken for granted. And they've been rated as a sort of model immigrant population in the United States.

And now you have a president who is actually saying that, well, I don't really care anything about them. For example, in some of the trade negotiations we have now been holding with the Americans, India is bringing in immigration issues and saying can we incorporate H-1B visas or something into the larger trade dialogue, which is something we've never done.

This interview is part of the GZERO project Global voices on the US election, which you can find in full here.

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