China was the elephant in the room when Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and US President Joe Biden talked in Washington DC last week. Deals struck at the meeting, be they civil or defence-related, were related to China even though neither side named it.

The US eschewed the “C-world” in deference to India’s sensitivities in regard to the management of its relations with China.

Even as defence and economic deals were firmed up and Indo-US ties were expanded, India did not commit itself to the US line in toto. While the US had a lot to offer, even membership of NATO-plus, India preferred to pick and choose so that it becomes stronger economically and militarily vis-à-vis China, but without provoking it to attack India.

China’s aggressive posturing on the Sino-Indian border, its support to Pakistan-based anti-Indian Islamic terrorists, and its bid to encircle India in  South Asia are key factors pushing India into the waiting arms of the United States.

But India is not entirely comfortable in the American embrace. And the reason, again, is China.

India has a more than a thousand-kilometre border with China where its forces are facing the Chinese, eyeball to eyeball. Memories of the 1962 Chinese aggression still lingers in Indian minds. Though the India of 2023 is not the India of 1962, New Delhi is extremely reluctant to go to war with China. “Do you expect us to go to war with an economy five times the size of ours?” asked Foreign Minister S.Jaishankar when asked why India was not pushing the Chinese out of the thousands of kilometers of Indian territory they had seized since 2020.

To put it bluntly, India does not want to become South Asia’s Ukraine in America’s conflict with China.

Yet, it wants deep friendship with the US to take advantage of the latter’s economic and technological prowess. Though this interest is couched in ideological terms (commitment to democratic governance etc.,) ideology is not the basis of it.

Given its experience with the US in the past, India is only too aware that the US is motivated by its national and geopolitical interests rather than the much-touted commitment to democracy and human rights. In 1962, the US supported India against Communist China, but the moment it made up with Communist China in 1969-70, it dropped India like a hot potato as it did in 1971 when its geopolitical interests clashed with India’s.

Be that as it may, times of change with the US feeling extremely challenged by the rise of China as an economic and military power. The US now desperately needs India and other Asian countries to be a bulwark against an expansionist China. India is ideally suited for the cultivation of friendship at this time, as its economy is growing, its size matches China, and it appears to be in an endless conflict with China over the border.

On its part, rising India is hungry for up-to-date technology not only to upgrade its industry but also to match China militarily. And America is the country to turn to for this. Traditionally, India has been buying military hardware from the USSR/Russia but Russian equipment is not up-to-date. And the Ukraine war has put a question mark on the delivery of spares.

One of the conditions insisted on by India in its talks on defence cooperation is that the arms supplier must also part with technology and allow manufacture in India. While the Russians had been open to these, the Americans had been finicky. But in its eagerness to get India over to its side to crush the beleaguered Russians and blunt China’s moves, the Americans have agreed to the manufacture of modern General Electric engines for India’s indigenous fighter aircraft the ‘Tejas’. The US is also selling modern drones or deployments against China.

India and the US had earlier signed an intelligence-sharing agreement which enabled India to counter some of the recent Chinese moves on the border.

It was to oil the new US-India engine that the Biden Administration invited Indian Prime Minister Narendra  Modi for a State visit and also arranged for an address to the US Congress. And if Biden did this despite strong protests by American liberals and the liberal media over Modi’s ill-liberal regime marked by curbs on the media and persecution of Muslims, it was because of America’s desperate need to pull India over to its side. Russia continues to hold Ukrainian territory despite the US giving billions of dollars worth of arms to Ukraine, and China is courted by some of America’s allies.

At their talks in Washington, Biden and Modi had gone halfway to meet each other. America agreed to supply some critical military hardware and know-how and cooperate in a wide variety of fields to make Indians highly skilled and useful to both countries.

While Biden talked of the US and India as having “the same democratic DNA” to underscore blood ties, Modi warmed the cockles of American hearts by criticizing Russia and China. But he did not name them so as to keep his ties intact.

On the Russian invasion of Ukraine war, which is of great concern to Americans, Modi told the Congress: “The last few years have seen deeply disruptive developments. With the Ukraine conflict, war has returned to Europe. It is causing great pain in the region. Since it involves major powers, the outcomes are severe. Countries of the Global South have been particularly affected.”

“The global order is based on the respect for the principles of the UN Charter, peaceful resolution of disputes, and respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity. ”

Going further, he said:  “As I have said directly and publicly, this is not an era of war. It is one of dialogue and diplomacy. And, we all must do what we can to stop the bloodshed and human suffering.”

Alluding to the challenge from China, Modi said: “ The dark clouds of coercion and confrontation are casting their shadow in the Indo-Pacific. The stability of the region has become one of the central concerns of our partnership.”

On China’s threat to maritime security and to the security of other countries, Modi said, again without naming China: “We (India and US) share a vision of a free, open and inclusive Indo Pacific, connected by secure seas, defined by international law, free from domination, and anchored in ASEAN centrality, a region where all nations, small and large, are free and fearless in their choices, where progress is not suffocated by impossible burdens of debt, where connectivity is not leveraged for strategic purposes, where all nations are lifted by the high tide of shared prosperity.”

But to make it clear that India does not seek to contain China but only to rein it in, Modi said, again without naming China: “Our vision does not seek to contain or exclude, but to build a cooperative region of peace and prosperity.”

He saw a role for “Quad” in this task: “We work through regional institutions and with our partners from within the region and beyond. Of this, Quad has emerged as a major force of good for the region,” he said.

The 4 million-strong Indian Diaspora in the US has been highly useful to both India and the US. Indians are 1% of the US population but pay 6% of the taxes. The Indian Diaspora in the US is also closely linked to India. Witness the grand receptions given to Modi by the Indian Diaspora every time he visits the US.

Modi’s visit has to be seen from the angle of India’s domestic politics also because nothing that Modi does is divorced from his domestic political interest which is to capture and retain power. Modi’s foreign policy is as domestic as it is foreign.

He is very conscious of his image abroad. Like Jawaharlal Nehru, he has made foreign policy a key ingredient of governance and his political appeal at home. Like Nehru, he envisages an expansive global role for India making it a “Vishwa Guru” (teacher of the word) just as Nehru wanted India to be the guiding light of a morality-based and peaceful world order free of warring blocs. If Nehru portrayed himself as the Asian messiah, Modi claims to speak for the Global South.

Indians who see themselves in resurgence, view Modi’s exploits aboard as a validation of their new-found pride. Modi hopes that the media coverage that he got during the US visit would fetch him a bumper crop of votes in the coming State Assembly and parliamentary elections. He will turn even the negative reports in the American liberal media to his advantage by portraying these as vestiges of a White supremacist and imperialistic era that Indians hate.

Given the widespread criticism of his government’s treatment of Muslims, Modi made a highly publicized visit to the Al-Hakim mosque in Cairo en route to Delhi. The 11 th.Century mosque was renovated recently by the Bohra Muslim expatriates from his native Gujarat. He told awe-struck Bohras, who he hugged and fraternized with, that he didn’t want to be addressed as Prime Minister. “I am family!” he said to everyone’s delight.