He also cited a range of common objectives and collaborations—from securing the Indian Ocean to climate change. There were clear signs that New Delhi was ready to fulfill US President Barack Obama's vision of India and America forming the defining partnership of the 21st century.
In an era marked by the competition between the US and China for greater economic and strategic influence, Modi has clearly decided to look westwards. It is imperative to remember that Vajpayee’s expression of “natural allies” was avoided during the previous Congress-led UPA regime to maintain the pretense of non-alignment.
Nonetheless, one did a witness a slight shift in India’s foreign policy priorities under the UPA. The Indo-US civil nuclear deal in 2008 was probably the first indicator of this shift in strategy after the Vajpayee years. But Modi has kicked it into overdrive. In April, New Delhi and Washington DC had in principle agreed to allow their respective militaries to use each other’s facilities.
Washington has officially recognised India as a “Major Defence Partner” in a joint statement on Tuesday. The joint statement, which was signed after Modi had met Obama, also announced a host of other measures which seek to take the relationship forward.
“India will buy six nuclear power plants from Toshiba-Westinghouse, America will help New Delhi build an indigenous aircraft carrier, the two countries will share more information about terrorists, Washington will help launch the next phase of the Indian-led International Solar Alliance and the US has also firmly backed India's entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group,” according to a report in Scroll.in.
It is also important to note that the US has also recently backed India’s entry into the Missile Technology Control Regime. Of course, the logistics of most of these agreements are still being thrashed out, despite weeks of back-channel talks. For example, the text for the Logistics Support Agreement, which would set a framework for the two countries to share military logistics, is yet to be finalised.
Even the Westinghouse deal remains in the throes of “finalising the contractual agreements by June 2017”. Nonetheless, Modi’s decision to kick Indo-US relations into overdrive was probably best summed up by the man himself. “More than fifteen years ago, Prime Minister of India, Atal Bihari Vajpayee stood here and gave a call to step out of the ‘shadow of hesitation’ of the past,” he said.
“The pages of our friendship since then tell a remarkable story. Today, our relationship has overcome the hesitations of history.”
China has indeed taken note of Modi’s overtures to the US. "Four visits to the US and seven meetings with President Barack Obama in two years – Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, since he took office in 2014, have ramped up India-US ties to an unprecedented level. How the two countries will engage with each other has raised heated discussions," according to Global Times, an arm of the Beijing-controlled media. The article then goes on to issue a veiled warning to India.
"Although rivalling China in many aspects, India knows its great vision cannot be realised by bashing or containing China. Instead, they should expand cooperation, explore the potentials and build mutual trust for their own good. China is more of a help than a competitor for India." Unlike the Cold War era, we do not live in a time where it has become imperative to align with one superpower at the cost of the other.
In the past, Prime Minister Modi also made unprecedented overtures to China, courting greater economic investment into India. Moreover, China remains India's largest trading partner. Nonetheless, the strategic implications of Modi’s recent visit to the US are very clear. The Obama administration wants India to become a major player in its “Pivot to Asia” doctrine.
Meanwhile, Modi seems happy to play along, considering China’s recent economic and military concessions to Pakistan. From the joint statement on Tuesday, it is evident that the US has also agreed to treat January's Pathankot attacks seriously as an act of terror equivalent to the 26/11 Mumbai attacks. China, meanwhile, has worked overtime to undermine India across international forums.
Apart from blocking India’s passage into the NSG, China has used its veto powers in the Security Council to assert that Pathankot attack mastermind Masood Azhar does not qualify as a terrorist who would have to face UN sanctions. During his address to the Congress, Modi had in fact made a pointed remark about terrorism without actually mentioning Pakistan.
He said the members of the US Congress had sent a message to those who support terrorism by not rewarding them, referring to its recent objection to the country’s F-16 fighter jet deal with Pakistan. Under these circumstances, Modi’s decision to lean westwards seems entirely reasonable.
Nonetheless, India must be careful not to enter into a one-sided relationship with the US and isolate China. Washington’s track record with its allies in the developing world does not inspire much confidence. There is a reason why commentators, especially on the left, criticise any move that seeks to develop closer ties with the US. One only has to look at Pakistan to understand the consequences of such a one-sided relationship with the US.
The LSA, which would let US soldiers use Indian military bases, is one such agreement that seems to tilt the balance too much in favour of the US. During his reign as Prime Minister, Modi has often invoked Vajpayee’s legacy. He would also do well to learn from Vajpayee’s decision to temper relations between “natural allies”. If it were not for the former Prime Minister, India would have sent its troops to fight George Bush’s ill-fated war in Iraq.
Despite calls from then Defence Minister George Fernandes and Home Minister LK Advani to send Indian troops to Iraq, Vajpayee held firm. In a moment of political astuteness, Vajpayee summoned two senior communist leaders in AB Bardhan and HK Surjeet to his office. Both leaders had earlier launched a nation-wide campaign against any Indian involvement in Iraq.
According to reports, Vajpayee implored both leaders to raise the decibel levels on the protest so that he could tell Bush his hands were tied. The rest, as they say, is history. In other words, India must consider its own self-interest rather than become a pawn in America’s “Pivot to Asia” doctrine.