A decade ago, observers of the complex Indo-US relationship were obsessed with the unwieldy concept of de-hyphenation. New Delhi had, for decades, bristled at Washington’s insistence on dealing with India and Pakistan in tandem. American leaders visiting India would make it a point to pop into Islamabad too, even if it was just for five hours as former US president did in 2000 after a five-day visit to India. But then, with the advent of the Indo-US civil nuclear deal towards the end of the George W Bush era, the hyphen was gone.

Now there’s a new hyphen in town, one that assigns India with a much more ambitious role in international politics. Aside from reaffirming commitments to fight terror, US President Barack Obama’s visit to India included no mention of its troubled neighbour across the Line of Control. Instead, the two countries laid out a vision document for a region that extends beyond India’s immediate backyard to include not just the vast expanse of the Indian ocean but also the highly contested waters of the Pacific.

“As the leaders of the world’s two largest democracies that bridge the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean region and reflecting our agreement that a closer partnership between the United States and India is indispensable to promoting peace, prosperity and stability in those regions, we have agreed on a Joint Strategic Vision for the region,” the joint statement read.

What it actually means

The statement itself features lots of platitudes, talk of “building partnerships” and promoting “shared values”, boilerplate stuff that would be expected from any document of this sort. But it also serves as a way of announcing India’s willingness to take a stance on important matters in the region without worrying about the foreign policy issue that has always dogged New Delhi – Kashmir.

Have a look at some of the specifics. The joint statement

*affirmed the importance of safeguarding maritime security, “especially in the South China Sea”,
*called on all parties to avoid the threat or use of force and to pursue resolution of maritime disputes through peaceful means,
*committed to strengthening the East Asia Summit,
*aimed to develop a roadmap that would leverage both countries’ efforts to “increase ties among Asian powers,” and
*announced US support for India’s bid to join the Asia Pacific Economic forum.

The first two of those will obviously be read as the US attempting to use India as a counterweight to China in the region. A New York Times report on Obama’s visit claimed that China dominated the first 45 minutes of discussions between the two leaders, where they realised that Modi’s vision seems to overlap with the American opinion on China.

“If that proves enduring, it could signal a shift more consequential than any specific deals or statements signed during Mr. Obama’s stay here,” the Times report said. “In effect, American officials hope the two powers can do much more together than the United States could do alone to restrain China’s ambitions and preserve the postwar order in the region.”

Even the Chinese saw the developments of the last few days in this light, with the foreign ministry officially saying Beijing is constantly working towards peace on the seas, while insisting that only the nations involved in the disputes should settle them, with no interference from “external countries”.

Not quite Indo-China

That reading of the talks might be significant, especially considering Modi’s reported willingness to revive the multilateral Asia-Pacific approach, which could further work to counter-balance Beijing. But, while hearing of Modi’s apparent agreement with the Americans on China, it’s hard not to forget the images of the Indian prime minister strolling the banks of the Sabarmati with Chinese Premier Xi Jinping.

Modi has spent years developing his relationship with China – which, it’s important to note, didn’t deny him a visa as the US did. He appears to be too astute of a player to simply put all Indian eggs in an American basket. Indeed, it is the latter aspects of the joint statement that New Delhi will be more excited about: a bigger role for India in various multilateral fora in the region. While this might be fueled by America’s need to contain China, don’t expect India to stop courting investment from Beijing anytime soon.

By agreeing with Obama on a number of issues and using American language in the vision statement, Modi has signalled a tilt towards the US in some matters. But New Delhi is also leveraging this American support to definitively put the Indo-Pak years behind it, and instead, insist on a broader role for India in the region.

How this will play out will be a matter of concern when the Modi administration gets down to the nuts and bolts of foreign policy, when it has to negotiate with China over border or economic issues or react to any sort of conflagration in the South China Sea. But while Modi still has the political capital of a massive electoral victory and the foreign policy image of an assertive, unbending India, New Delhi is taking advantage of the regional situation to refashion its global image.