Arriving coincidentally in Washington on the same day as Prime Minister Narendra Modi, I was in for some pleasant surprises, amidst memories of the past.

There has been a steady improvement in our relations with the US since our nuclear tests in May 1998. Those tests were followed by the imposition of stringent but unsuccessful sanctions by the Clinton administration. The joint statement that was issued announced that preparatory work had commenced for constructing six nuclear reactors, each of 1000 MW, to be built in India by Westinghouse. India also agreed to commence implementation after financial terms for credits had been agreed upon with the US Exim Bank, with contracts to be finalised by June 2017. The US is today our largest export market for both goods and services.

Path-breaking deal

This was, for me, the most significant agreement reached during Modi’s visit. My last days in our embassy in Washington in 1981 had been spent negotiating an “amicable end” to all nuclear ties with the US. There was mutual agreement that India would find an alternative source of nuclear fuel for the two 238 MW reactors in the Tarapur nuclear power plant.

The sustained American attempt, to “cap, roll back and eliminate” our nuclear programme ended when Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee defied American pressure and tested nuclear weapons. What followed was a path-breaking nuclear deal, which progressively ended all nuclear sanctions against India. This was negotiated and signed by Manmohan Singh in the face of strong opposition from the highest levels in his own Congress Party, not to speak of their communist allies, who were ever ready to torpedo anything that did not suit their ‘comrades’ in Beijing. After four decades, the wheel has now turned full circle in the India-US nuclear relationship.

In discussions I had in Washington after Modi’s departure, there was happiness with what he said in his address to the US Congress, and his visits to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery, and the Space Shuttle Columbia Memorial to pay homage to astronaut Kalpana Chawla.

We have an astonishing policy on honouring soldiers killed in combat in the world wars. 62,000 Indian soldiers lost their lives in World War 1 and 87,000 in World War 2. We have not paid respect to these men who did us proud when soldiers from all over India fought and died together. Moreover, while our ‘netas’ paid homage at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Moscow, even though Indian soldiers never fought alongside their Soviet counterparts, there was a disinclination to make a similar gesture elsewhere. There are strong emotions in Australia about their soldiers killed in Gallipoli, while fighting alongside Indians. Worse, we are yet to complete construction of a suitable memorial in our own capital for our soldiers killed defending the country after Independence. Modi is, however, addressing this issue.

Modi’s visit naturally focused attention on issues of concern to us including terrorism, where the threats posed by groups like Dawood’s D Company, the Lashkar-e-Taiba and the Jaish-e-Mohammed were referred to. He did not mince words when he alluded to Pakistan sponsorship of terrorism in India, the Pathankot attack and terrorism in Afghanistan. The finalisation of a roadmap for cooperation across the Pacific and Indian oceans now clears the way for increasing maritime cooperation. India should insist that this cannot be selective to suit just US interests; it must cover both our eastern and western seaboards.

Building on ties

US support for our membership of the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group (NSG) was reaffirmed. Significantly, all this was occurring at a time when China became a collaborator and apologist for Pakistan-sponsored terrorism by blocking action against the Jaish-e-Mohammed in the UN and actively opposing our membership of the NSG. What has, however, impressed people abroad is that India is now ready to make a serious effort to step up production of clean energy to address concerns on global warming.

Does this growing relationship with the US undermine our ability to strengthen ties with other major players on the world stage? The answer is no.

Almost immediately after his return, Modi called President Vladimir Putin, reiterating the importance he attaches to relations with Russia. The two leaders met in Tashkent on June 24 and have agreed to expand cooperation in areas such as space, petrochemicals and nuclear power, and measures to enhance cooperation in defence supplies and production. India has tacitly acknowledged the importance of Russia’s role in Syria. The bilateral engagement with Russia is being complemented by Indian participation in forums such as the SCO (Shanghai Cooperation Organisation), BRICS and the India-Russia-China trilateral dialogue. India can take a relaxed view of Russian supply of defence equipment such as MI 35 attack helicopters to Pakistan, which is so cash strapped that it cannot pay for expensive acquisitions like the SU 35 aircraft.

While Russia has tried to experiment with pleasing China and Pakistan by supporting ‘dialogue’ with the Taliban, it is aware of the serious impact on the security of its Central Asian allies, in the event of a Taliban takeover of Afghanistan. Russia is strengthening its defence ties with Vietnam, with supply of military hardware, despite Chinese misgivings.

China in perspective

China cannot be allowed to have a veto on how we conduct our relations with others, especially given its growing nuclear, missile and security ties with Pakistan, and its efforts to undermine our relations with Saarc neighbours, including Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka. One area in which India can work together with Russia and the US is in building military potential and rendering diplomatic support to Vietnam.

The focus of its relations with China should remain on maintaining peace and tranquillity along the border and expanding economic cooperation. Given Beijing’s recent actions on Pakistan-sponsored terrorism and Indian membership of the NSG, India should respond more assertively on issues such as China’s violations of the UN Convention on the Law of the Seas. Despite the present bonhomie, Moscow and Beijing have historically had ties clouded by rivalries, tensions and mistrust. This should be borne in mind while crafting a policy of ‘strategic autonomy’.

The writer is a former High Commissioner to Pakistan