Preceded by a reverential reception and peppered by several standing ovations, Narendra Modi’s one-hour speech at Congress in June 2023 was much more than a diplomatic address to the US’s House of Representatives and Senate, or even a message to America’s political circles. Modi’s address put forward India’s aspiration for a new global positioning.

The primary international relations issue India faces today concerns its stance in the nascent American-Chinese confrontation. Given its decades long tension with China over their borders, which at times escalated to serious military clashes, India is inclined to side with the US.

Also China’s increasing closeness to Pakistan, India’s key strategic opponent, draws India to America. Not surprisingly, India accepted to be part of the “Quad” which brings it with the US, Japan, and Australia to a range of initiatives, some of which have unmistakable military hues.

Economics also move India towards America and the West in general. Despite a notable role for the state in the economy and having highly assertive regulators in several industries, India’s economy is now far from the centralisation of the decades from the 1950s to the early 1990s. The most important sectors of India’s economy – technology, telecoms, information sciences, and pharmaceutics - are closely integrated into Western value chains, and almost totally dependent on Western investors and markets.

India’s diaspora also nudges the country towards the West. The millions of Indians in the Gulf are important sources of remittances. But so are the tens of millions of Americans from Indian origins, many of whom have achieved immense success. The vast majority of the CEOs of America’s top 20 technology companies have familial or cultural connections to India. Americans from Indian origins are well represented at the leadership strata of the highly powerful American finance industry. American-Indians have become among the most successful communities in US politics. Prime Minister Modi pointed to one such American, US Vice President Kamila Harris, who was sitting right behind him during his address to Congress, before joking that he was told that samosas are now a popular dish at the US legislature.

India clearly wants closeness to America. In another joke at Congress, Modi referred to major advances in AI, reminding his audience that he refers to the American-Indian relationship rather than to artificial intelligence.

Despite all of these factors, India has adopted a position of strategic ambiguity regarding the nascent US-China confrontation. India insists on being a partner of the US, but one who has full discretion over its positions and choices, and that, at this stage, has no commitments to any party concerning the future. This is a vastly different strategic position compared to those of key American allies in Europe or Asia (such as Japan), who are expected in a moment of real tension between the US and China to adopt roles closely coordinated with, if not prescribed by, Washington.

India’s insistence on having an independent international posture stems from its strategic orientation, since its independence from Britain in the late 1940s, to be non-aligned with either the West or its opponents and competitors.

This merits respect. For despite that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s party, the BJP, is a historical political opponent of India’s Congress Party, that designed India’s non-alignment strategy, Modi and his government appreciate the rationale behind the foreign policy that India has adopted in the past seven decades. In this, India – like all countries with serious understandings of their historical trajectories and key objectives – demonstrates its adherence to solid international relations policy frameworks. It adapts to changes but does not lose sight of its givens.

There is power in such consistency. There are many in the US Congress, from both the Democratic and Republican parties, who have apprehensions about India’s insistence on full strategic independence in the American-Chinese nascent confrontation, especially as India has become, in the past two decades, a major beneficiary of trade, particularly in services, with the US. Still, even those critical voices understand that India sticks to what it has always seen as its strategic interests. Such consistency demonstrates a strong sense of institutionalised thought and policy-making, which observers, respect.

India also correctly calculates that it ought to avoid any direct tension with China in the foreseeable future. India’s economy has grown dramatically in the three decades since its opening up in the early 1990s. India has surpassed China to become the world’s most populous country. And as Modi has repeatedly emphasised in his address to Congress, several of India’s socio-economic projects, whether in education or healthcare or infrastructure, dwarf those of many Western countries. Still, there is a considerable power differential between India and China. India does not match China’s industrial prowess, decisive position in some of the most important value chains at the heart of international trade, China’s global reach, or China’s military. A rising India, concerned about its economic growth, and about hundreds of millions of Indians who remain poor, is determined to avoid being drawn into a strategic confrontation with China, especially that it shares with it a long border with a fraught history.

Culture plays a role as well. One of India’s key successes in the period since its independence has been its insistence on preserving its cultural uniqueness. This has economic benefits. India’s entertainment industry is a major source of income for the country’s private sector and tax revenues, and a major source of foreign currency. But cultural power transcends economics. India’s culture and entertainment, let alone the rich philosophical strands of its civilisational heritage, are the country’s most powerful manifestations and generators of soft power. They draw tens of millions the world over to the country’s civilisational fold. Strengthening this culture is a strategic investment. Acquiescence to cultural dilution is an abdication of power – and India has never since its independence, succumbed to such abdication.

Perhaps a part of the strategic calculation is a desire to buy time. On one hand, India’s economic rise would yield more developmental gains, social improvements, and therefore more power in different forms – all leading to strengthening India’s posture vis a vis China. On the other hand, Prime Minister Modi’s party, the BJP, seems to be on a slow but steady mission to entrench a form of socio-political Hinduism as the primary strand of Indian identity. This stirs serious tensions in the country, which compels any decision maker to prioritise domestic concerns as much as foreign affairs.

Those who listened to PM Modi in Congress, across America’s key power circles, and in different capitals concerned about the shape of the world in the coming few years, could detect clearly from his words that India wants to be close to the West, but not attached to it. In this, Modi was cognisant of the pull of history, mindful of powerful drivers in the present, and respectful, realistically and without hyperbole, of the true weight of his nation. But how his government will undertake this international positioning will, however, be far from easy, especially as the confrontation between the US and China unfolds, particularly in East Asia, a region of strategic importance to India. Given India’s weight in international affairs, its actions will prove consequential far beyond its sub-continent.