US secretary of defence Chuck Hagel, who was one of two major plenipotentiaries of US President Barack Obama to visit India ahead of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Washington and New York in September, said something significant when he expressed the opinion that there was no need for India to choose between the US and China. This should go down well with the new government in New Delhi because BJP think tanks on foreign policy have been saying exactly that while laying out a roadmap for India’s foreign policy. Good ties and more trade with China were the top priorities laid out for the BJP-led alliance to accomplish.
Mr Modi’s regional thrust — seen in his invitation to Saarc leaders to attend his inauguration — was the first sign that the new dispensation was going to strike a different path on traditional Indian foreign relations that tended to lean towards the US, as in the signing of the nuclear pact, even while enjoying very special bonds with Russia. It appears India may now look in parallel at ties beyond the realm of defence cooperation, regardless of how important they are in terms of changing older strategic initiatives, and strike out on an independent path in terms of seeking trade with anyone willing to do business. Mr Hagel’s advice in this regard might even reflect the official US position on the changing world scene.
Mr Hagel had come in search of the spin-offs the US defence hardware industry has been expecting. He was, in fact, quite generous in offering to take forward the Defence Trade and Technology Initiative in terms of agreements on equipment that would help modernise crucial operations concerning India’s defence preparedness while also helping beef up cybersecurity, a strategic area gaining importance by the day.
Deals worth $9 billion may have been signed between India and the US in the last six years, as Mr Hagel points out, but the area of cooperation in advanced defence systems is expanding only now, indicating a higher level of US engagement with India. Mr Hagel’s comparison of Mr Obama and Mr Modi in terms of their humble backgrounds is not to be dismissed as mere diplomatic treacle. With Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif also regretting his country’s poor relations with India and saying so ahead of the meeting of the foreign secretaries, which signals movement towards a resumption of talks, it does appear the country is on a very good wicket. It will be interesting to see how well Mr Modi and his team bat to take forward a balanced foreign policy.