The phrase that stood out in Prime Minister Modi’s 45-minute address to the joint session of the US Congress was the felicitous “hesitations of history”. This does not imply that India would have been a far more prosperous country today if it had rushed into a US embrace earlier. The example of Pakistan, which became an ally of the US, is there for everyone to see.

The hesitations are not just from India. According to Anil Dharker, writer & columnist “for years and years, the US equated Pakistan with India, notwithstanding the relative sizes of the two countries and the fact that only one of the two was a robust democracy. It has taken the looming presence of China and the dalliance of Pakistan with terrorism that has finally made the US see that in India it has the only worthwhile partner in this part of the world.

“The give-and-take now works in many ways. The strategic aspect is obviously the most important for both countries. Beyond that, the US needs India’s already large and fast-growing market in virtually every field, including defence. India, on the other hand, needs access to cutting-edge technology, which its new relationship will undoubtedly lead to. An example is the clearance for building six nuclear reactors in India by Westinghouse, something which has been hanging fire for a long time.

“…..How could any American leader not notice that some of the US’ largest companies like Microsoft, Google and Pepsico are headed by Indians? And that persons of Indian origin are also making an impact in running the US administration, in science and technology centres, and so on?”

The more important thing is that Modi has seized the opportunity. “In his two years in office, he has circled the world, met leaders from different power blocs, worked out agreements in trade, commerce and defence to the country’s long-term advantage, but he has singled out the US for special attention…….This has helped India get into the Missile Technology Control Regime and has brought it close to entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group….”

Two years of Modi, says Dharkar “have clearly shown that he wants to put the hesitations of history firmly behind him. They also show that he prefers the give and take of foreign diplomacy to the rough and tumble of India’s domestic problems”.

India needs strategic space to grow; US will encourage this

Analyst Pramit Pal Chaudhur says “India needs strategic space to grow – and Washington will encourage that expansion. This understanding is the main accomplishment of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s repeated interactions with President Barack Obama. A stance further consolidated with Modi’s recent visit to Washington……

“Much of what Modi and Obama have worked out will provide an institutional framework for future relations. For example, they have worked out around the unique status of India in the US strategic environment: a trusted partner, yet non-ally. Hence the joint statement’s creation of a new position: major defence partner. This will provide a pigeonhole for bureaucrats to put India, easing the sale of high-end defence equipment, co-development of weapons and sharing of intelligence and sensitive information”.

Modi has decisively lurched India into the US orbit

It is thus no surprise that after three summits and seven meetings with US President Barack Obama in two years, analyst Sushil Aaron writes “Modi has decisively lurched India into the US orbit, consolidating steps to bring the two sides closer — a strategy initiated by the previous Manmohan Singh government”.

There are, of course says Aaron, sound reasons for India to forge closer ties with the US. As the September 2014 India-US joint statement indicates, Delhi sees the US “as a principal partner in the realisation of India’s rise as a responsible, influential world power”. India looks to the US as a source of investment, weapons, high technology and expertise in several areas including agriculture, education, health, energy and space. It wants to leverage Washington’s influence in international institutions for its purposes and values American counterterrorist cooperation and intercession with Pakistan.

There’s also a strong social impetus for closer ties with a diaspora of close to 3 million clamour for closer ties with Washington.

India’s US closeness conflict with India-China relations

All this says Aaron “would translate into a fairly stable harmony of interests if there wasn’t an explicit security edge to the India-US relationship that adversely affects China and India-China ties, notwithstanding Delhi’s anxieties about Beijing’s ambitions. As things stand, both the India-US rhetoric and direction of bilateral ties work at cross purposes with the declared objectives of the India-China relationship, which even Modi has signed on to — as recently as 2015. India will be hard pressed in times ahead to square the circle”.

The India –China joint statement of May 2013 after Premier Li Keqiang’s visit to India, said “The two sides welcome each other’s peaceful development and regard it as a mutually reinforcing process. There is enough space in the world for the development of India and China, and the world needs the common development of both countries…Both countries view each other as partners for mutual benefit and not as rivals or competitors.”

The May 2015 joint statement after Modi’s return visit reads: “The leaders agreed that simultaneous re-emergence of India and China as two major powers in the region and the world offers a momentous opportunity for realisation of the Asian Century. They noted that India-China bilateral relations are poised to play a defining role in the 21st Century in Asia and indeed, globally. The leaders agreed that the process of the two countries pursuing their respective national developmental goals and security interests must unfold in a mutually supportive manner with both sides showing mutual respect and sensitivity to each other’s concerns, interests and aspirations. This constructive model of relationship between the two largest developing countries, the biggest emerging economies and two major poles in the global architecture provides a new basis for pursuing state-to-state relations to strengthen the international system.”

Indian analysts who justify closer relations with the US argue that China will always support Pakistan at the cost of India.

The counter argument by Aaron is that “when most of India’s challenges are internal, confronting China and souring relations with its establishment is not in our economic interest.

And Modi must remember that for all their anxiety about Chinese expansionism, other Asian powers, including Australia, Singapore, Vietnam are eagerly consolidating economic ties with China. And US-China trade was worth $599 billion last year.

“Clearly all these powers are reconciled to China being a central part of their future. India is arguably no different, maintaining a healthy trade of $80 billion in 2015 but Delhi fails to maintain a public narrative that captures both economic opportunity and political differences — it has a tendency to get into a sulk imagining unchanging Chinese malevolence, which plays its part in the slowdown of ties”.

In this contest, Aaron questions “why should India be party to recriminations concerning the South China Sea and invite further Chinese investment in the South Asian neighbourhood, either though active the wooing of Sri Lanka or buying land in the Maldives?”

As historian and IR scholar Srinath Raghavan argues “China’s rapid military modernisation and assertive behaviour are evident. But there is little to suggest that we needed to cosy up to the US on such terms”.

He writes: “An overwhelming amount of China’s own trade flows through the South China Sea, so how is it in Chinese interests to impede freedom of navigation there? The phrase “freedom of navigation” is a euphemism for the freedom of the US navy to patrol close to Chinese coasts. By embracing it so enthusiastically, we are signalling our willingness to help uphold US naval dominance in the Asia-Pacific. The claims by some Indian analysts that the US will help ensure a multipolar Asia is naïve. The US is committed to only ensuring its own unquestioned primacy. And there are ways of leveraging American power to our own purposes without going down the current path.”

Aaron concludes that “each nation is looking out for itself, talking up the dragon but actively dealing with it simultaneously and India must be no different”.

Costs of the strategic partnership with the US

In this context, Raja C Mohan, Director, Carnegie India and consulting editor on foreign policy for The Indian Express debates if the costs of the strategic partnership with the United States might be too high.

He believes that all major actions in the world of foreign policy, as elsewhere, have consequences. “Modi’s challenge, therefore, is two-fold: Move decisively to take full advantage of the entente with America; at the same time, anticipate and manage some of the inevitable consequences of the new strategic warmth towards Washington. If external possibilities saw India wring its hands in the past, Delhi must now broaden its diplomatic activism to reduce the potential costs and maximise benefits.

The do-nothing approach very much defined the decade-long UPA rule. But if the costs of a do-nothing strategy are significant, so are the dangers of ignoring the consequences of what one does. “Nothing illustrates this better than Delhi’s collective failure in anticipating the reactions of Pakistan, China and the West to a series of moves that Prime Minister Indira Gandhi made during 1971-75. These bold moves included an alliance with the Soviet Union, breaking up Pakistan by liberating Bangladesh, conducting the first nuclear test, and integrating Sikkim into the Indian Union.

“The problem was never with the merits of the strategic choices that India made. It was the failure to assess the consequences and deal with them. These included Pakistan’s quest for nuclear weapons, China’s decision to lend atomic support for Pakistan, the international efforts to isolate India in the high technology domain, the deepening fears of Indian hegemony among the South Asian neighbours and the image of India as a Soviet pawn in Asia. By the time India woke up to the consequences, the scale of the effort needed to cope with them had become much larger. In some ways, we are still struggling to come to terms with the events of that period”.

The Modi government, however, says Mohan “appears aware of the need to reassure its other partners in the international arena, especially Russia and China, who have some concerns about India’s relations with the United States. A similar effort will also be needed with our neighbours.

“While the reaction in Pakistan to Modi’s US visit has been overwrought, there are fears in other countries that stronger bonds with America might make Delhi more domineering than before.

“The Modi government now has expansive diplomatic leverage and political agency to broaden relations with all the major powers and deepen its engagement with neighbours. After the entente with America, India must have the self-assurance to shed its other “hesitations of history”, especially towards China and Pakistan”.

Nirupama Rao, former foreign secretary points out that in the advancement of relations with the US, and overcoming the hesitations of history, “we need not be deterred by Chinese negativity. But we must ensure equilibrium in the “mandala” of all the key relationships, particularly with China, because geography has ordained that it is our neighbor”.

Getting close to US may imperil ties with Russia

Bharat Karnad, Professor, Centre for Policy Research, takes a different view. He discusses the possible impact of getting close to US on India’s time-tested relations with Russia. He writes that it is imprudent “to even contemplate imperilling ties with Russia, and doing without the leased Akula-II nuclear-powered attack submarine and Russian involvement in strategically sensitive programmes, such as the Arihant SSBN. Besides, given that the bulk of the conventional armaments with the Indian armed forces are of Russian origin, an aggravated Kremlin could shut down Indian capabilities if it chose to. Indeed, Moscow has already given notice it will rethink its role in sensitive Indian defence projects and about leasing a second Akula if New Delhi signs the “foundational” accords formalising a security relationship with Washington.

But India has pressed ahead and finalised the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA). Americans anticipate accoding to Karnad “that with LEMOA in the bag, the other two “foundational” accords — Communications Interoperability and Security Memorandum of Agreement (CISMOA) and Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA) — will follow. Indian officials claim CISMOA’s usefulness in counter-terrorism activity. But it is something Russia is wary of, as it will allow the US to plug into the communications system linking Indian aircraft to submarines, enabling remote spoofing of the communications hardware in the Akula SSNs. This is too risky for Moscow not to consider a pull out, which move could end in firming up a formidable Russia-China-Pakistan triad. With India and US getting together, China will be more determined to deny India entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group, leave alone as permanent member into the UN Security Council”.

The problem says Mohan “is with Modi’s personalised diplomacy wedded to his vision for the country as a subsidiary power. He further believes that India should make friends and that friends mean well. Except, Western leaders will be friendly, but ultimately pocket contracts worth tens of billions of dollars (for six nuclear reactors, in Obama’s case), and otherwise advance their national interests, leaving India to wax eloquent about shared democratic values”.