Crispin Rovere wrote on The Interpreter yesterday that India sees itself 'as an emerging great power.' Those words carried extra resonance for me here in New Delhi, where I am attending an India-US 1.5 track conference arranged by the Atlantic Council and the Vivekananda International Foundation.
India has long nursed such ambitions, but it is unusual for any senior foreign policy figure, let alone the head of India's foreign ministry, to voice it in a public setting. Yet that is exactly what happened here today. The new Secretary of India's Ministry of External Affairs, S Jaishankar, made his first public address in that role at the India-US 2015 conference. He gave a memorable address that closed with the claim that India is transitioning from being a balancing power to being a leading power.
India's ambitions are rarely stated so bluntly.
Jaishankar was equally frank about the US presence in the region, which he said contributed a valuable element of uncertainty: 'My sense is that, from an Indian perspective today, for us the fact that the US is both a source of supply and a military partner helps to create enough uncertainties that could actually strengthen security in Indo-Pacific region'. This was overwhelmingly read by those in the room as suggesting that America's presence complicates China's calculations. It's quite rare for a senior figure like Jaishankar to talk in such nakedly Macchiavellian terms.
In fact, the entire speech was bluntly realist and unsentimental. There was little talk of democracy or shared values with the US, and Jaishankar talked candidly about the many problems in the relationship. This media report reflects Jaishankar's critical tone.
But I heard something else too.
In fact, the speech struck me as setting a more pro-American posture than I was used to hearing in my short time here. Yes, he focused a lot on shortcoming and challenges, but all in the service, it seemed to me, of wanting to move the relationship forward — the problems he identified were framed as ones to be overcome, not as reasons to limit ambitions. I have had the sense, during this visit, that it's the Americans who urgently want to elevate the relationship even more than has already occurred, and that the Indians are reluctant to match this enthusiasm. Jaishankar seemed to turn this on its head. He spoke of the recent Modi-Obama Joint Strategic Vision statement, which defined shared interests in the Asia Pacific. He said the symbolic significance of Obama's presence for the Indian Republic Day celebrations 'could not be overstated'. Even his criticisms of the American posture in the Indian Ocean were couched in terms of encouraging the US to do more. He said at one point America's trumpet must sound in a more certain way in the region.
Mind you, Jaishankar also seemed to signal that closer relations would not come on any terms. He dampened expectations of reforms to India's foreign investment rules, arguing that there was little need to do more so long as India's domestic economy improved. And yet he encouraged the US defence sector to share more with Indian partners, because it was in US interests to see the emergence of a 'serious Indian defence industry' (ouch, take that, Hindustan Aeronautics).
So times are really changing in the India-US relationship. A veteran India observer pointed out to me today that events such as this one used to be dominated by discussions about Pakistan. The subtext in Jaishankar's remarks, and comfortably the most discussed topic of the day, was the rise of China.