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Why the Biden administration is so invested in India

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Over the past couple years, the Biden administration has been fostering a closer relationship with the Indian government. For example, this past summer, President Biden gave Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi one of the highest honors for a world leader - an official state visit. But while the White House has been cozying up to the Modi government, members of Biden's own party have raised concerns about human rights and religious freedoms in India. And just last week, the U.S. Justice Department announced charges against an Indian national for allegedly plotting to kill a Sikh activist in New York. Prosecutors say an Indian government official was behind the assassination attempt.

We wanted to know where relations between the two countries stand and why the Biden administration is so invested in India to begin with, so we're turning to Arzan Tarapore. He's a research scholar at Stanford University focusing on South Asian security issues. Welcome.

ARZAN TARAPORE: Thanks very much, Ailsa. Great to be with you.

CHANG: So before we get to this indictment of the Indian national I just mentioned, I actually want to start with China 'cause China is currently the top national security threat for the U.S., right? How much is the Biden administration nurturing a closer relationship with India because they believe India would step up as an ally should there be a confrontation with China?

TARAPORE: So there's clearly a heavy focus on China. And it's not just the Biden administration. It's several successive administrations that have recognized that India is an important country globally and especially in the Indo-Pacific. A large part of that is because of China itself. Parts of Washington are concerned at the prospect of a military confrontation, and they hope that India will play some sort of role in that. There are big question marks over that. But aside from the military confrontation, as the U.S. engages in strategic competition with China over the rules of the road and the shape of the international system, they recognize that India will be an important partner in helping to shape that system.

CHANG: OK. Well, I want to pick up on the military element because some have argued that India just isn't worth the kind of investment the Biden administration is making in the relationship with India because India would not come to the U.S.' side in a military confrontation with China. I mean, do you still see value in India and the U.S. working together to incrementally deter China?

TARAPORE: Absolutely. So first of all, we have to be careful when we talk about military confrontation. It's a very big, amorphous subject, right? Most of the time, when we're talking about military confrontation between the U.S. and China, it usually is the Taiwan scenario. And in that, I think, unbalance, it is unlikely that India will fight for Taiwan directly in and around Taiwan.

CHANG: OK.

TARAPORE: But as you said, I think there's still a lot that India can do as a strategic actor in the region. India has, for decades, had its own strategic competition with China. They are abiding and intensifying security rivals themselves, and it's in the U.S.' interests to ensure that India has the wherewithal and the capacity to deter Chinese assertiveness and aggression and, should it come to it, to acquit itself well in a conflict against China. So it's not just about Taiwan. It's about India as a stabilizing, strategic actor in the region.

CHANG: You mentioned near the beginning of this conversation nonmilitary benefits to both countries for forging a stronger relationship. But let me ask you this - are some of these benefits coming at the expense of the democratic values that President Biden has openly advocated? - you know, like, if the U.S. is supporting a country such as India that has had a questionable human rights record.

TARAPORE: In the U.S., there has been a tension between how the U.S. sees India as a strategic actor in the region and in the world and what it thinks of India's political character at home domestically. The Biden administration seeks to address that by assuring its critics that it does, in fact, deliver the messages behind closed doors to India about its concerns over India's political direction. There is definitely a tension, especially from the Biden administration, that does focus on democracy, but it's a tension that I think they've sort of decided that they can handle. It's two separate parts of the brain. One part of the brain cares about democracy and speaks to the Indians behind closed doors about it. The other part of the brain cares about India's external behavior and seeks to forge ahead with an ever-tightening partnership to stabilize the Indo-Pacific.

CHANG: Finally, I want to get into the indictment of Nikhil Gupta. He's the Indian national who's being prosecuted for allegedly plotting to kill a Sikh activist on U.S. soil. And these allegations - I mean, they came just months after Canada accused agents of the Indian government of murdering a Sikh community leader there. Prime Minister Modi responded aggressively to those accusations. Canadians were briefly barred from applying for visas to go to India, and relations between Canada and India have been pretty strained ever since. Could the same thing happen between India and the U.S.? Like, could this indictment of Gupta damage the U.S.-India relationship?

TARAPORE: First of all, I don't think the same thing can happen with India and the U.S. It's already shown that it's not the same thing for two main reasons. First of all, the U.S. handled the situation much more sensitively than the Canadian government did. The Canadian government made an announcement in Parliament and offered no shred of evidence, which invited the Indians to suggest that this was a false claim.

The second main reason is, of course, that the U.S. matters to India much more than Canada matters to India. And so of course, there is interest on both sides to ensure that an issue like this does not derail the deepening partnership.

CHANG: Arzan Tarapore is a research scholar at the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University. Thanks for being with us.

TARAPORE: Absolutely. My pleasure. Thank you very much, Ailsa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.
Jonaki Mehta is a producer for All Things Considered. Before ATC, she worked at Neon Hum Media where she produced a documentary series and talk show. Prior to that, Mehta was a producer at Member station KPCC and director/associate producer at Marketplace Morning Report, where she helped shape the morning's business news.
Kathryn Fox