Tiller­son’s In­dia visit has sent clear sig­nals to China & Pak

DNA (Daily News & Analysis) Mumbai Edition - - FRONT PAGE -

The just-con­cluded visit of US Sec­re­tary of State Rex Tiller­son to South Asia (Oc­to­ber 26) was his first to the re­gion and in­cluded a whistle-stop tour of Afghanistan and Pak­istan and an ex­tended two night stay in Delhi. The strate­gic im­port of this visit for the Asian re­gion and by ex­ten­sion the larger global can­vas is bet­ter com­pre­hended when re­viewed against what pre­ceded the Tiller­son visit and what fol­lowed al­most im­me­di­ately.

A week prior to the South Asia visit, Tiller­son made what may be re­called in the fu­ture as a very sig­nif­i­cant ar­tic­u­la­tion of the Trump as­sess­ment and re­lated pol­icy apro­pos the two Asian giants — In­dia and China. This speech was de­liv­ered at a ma­jor Wash­ing­ton DC think-tank on Oc­to­ber 18 and the date is rel­e­vant, for this over­lapped with the in­au­gu­ra­tion of the 19th Party Congress of the Chi­nese Com­mu­nist Party in Bei­jing — a once in five-years event that is sem­i­nal to the do­mes­tic po­lit­i­cal dy­namic of China.

Th­ese two speeches have con­sid­er­able sig­nif­i­cance for Delhi and the evo­lu­tion of its ori­en­ta­tion to­wards th­ese two ma­jor pow­ers and their in­nate strate­gic dis­so­nance, given In­dia’s own sta­tus as a crit­i­cal ‘swing-state’ in the emerg­ing macro pic­ture of the early 21st cen­tury.

The Tiller­son speech in DC was a cur­tain-raiser for the Delhi visit and struck the right chords by dwelling on Di­wali — the In­dian fes­ti­val of lights and what that sym­bol­ised for il­lu­mi­nat­ing the bi-lat­eral be­tween the two large democ­ra­cies. Ti­tled “On Defin­ing Our Re­la­tion­ship with In­dia for the Next Cen­tury” the speech was both ex­pan­sive and gen­er­ous in how the re­la­tion­ship was en­vi­sioned.

The mar­itime flavour of the Tiller­son speech was dis­tinc­tive and the term ‘Indo-Pa­cific’ was men­tioned al­most 20 times — and the for­mu­la­tion very am­bi­tious. It noted: “The United States and In­dia are in­creas­ingly global part­ners with grow­ing strate­gic con­ver­gence. The emerg­ing Delhi-Wash­ing­ton strate­gic part­ner­ship stands upon a shared com­mit­ment up­hold­ing the rule of law, free­dom of nav­i­ga­tion, uni­ver­sal val­ues, and free trade. Our na­tions are two book­ends of sta­bil­ity — on ei­ther side of the globe — stand­ing for greater se­cu­rity and pros­per­ity for our cit­i­zens and peo­ple.”

Fur­ther­more, in what may be termed a de­par­ture from diplo­matic pro­to­col, China was re­ferred to in an un­mis­tak­able man­ner and the con­trast with In­dia was stark. Tiller­son ob­served: “China, while ris­ing along­side In­dia, has done so less re­spon­si­bly, at times un­der­min­ing the in­ter­na­tional, rules-based or­der even as coun­tries like In­dia op­er­ate within a frame­work that pro­tects other na­tions’ sovereignty. China’s provoca­tive ac­tions in the South China Sea di­rectly chal­lenge the in­ter­na­tional law and norms that the United States and In­dia both stand for.”

Link this with the marathon 205-minute Xi Jin­ping speech in Bei­jing on the same day and the la­tent dis­cord be­tween the world’s two ma­jor pow­ers is pal­pa­ble. Pres­i­dent Xi, who has now been el­e­vated to near-canon­i­cal sta­tus in the Chi­nese pan­theon along­side Chair­man Mao, has yoked him­self and his na­tion to the re­al­i­sa­tion of the Chi­nese dream.

Cer­ti­tude about China’s world-view and a dogged as­sertive­ness that seeks def­er­ence and sub­servience to the Mid­dle King­dom from its in­ter­locu­tors are the dom­i­nant fea­tures of the Xi vi­sion. This will be pred­i­cated on the eco­nomic bo­nanza ex­pected from the Belt and Road Ini­tia­tive (BRI) and but­tressed by build­ing a strong and mod­ern mil­i­tary that can ‘win wars.’ The in­fer­ence for the world is that China will rise, for sure, and it need not be peace­ful!

Against this back­drop, the Tiller­son visit to Afghanistan and Pak­istan could be seen as an ex­ten­sion of the Trump team’s re­view of US pol­icy to­wards South Asia go­ing back to 9/11 and the global war on ter­ror. Rawalpindi’s du­plic­ity in sup­port­ing ter­ror groups se­lec­tively, even while pro­ject­ing it­self as a vic­tim of ter­ror, was re­jected and the Pak­istan gov­ern­ment served a warn­ing — re­form or else.

This tough-talk tenor con­tin­ued in Delhi, where again for the first time that one can re­call — a se­nior US cabi­net of­fi­cial dwelt on Pak­istan’s per­fidy and fragility. In talks with his In­dian coun­ter­part For­eign Min­is­ter Sushma Swaraj, Sec­re­tary Tiller­son re­ferred to his con­cern “about the sta­bil­ity and se­cu­rity of Pak­istan’s gov­ern­ment” if the do­mes­tic ter­ror foot-print grows in an un­fet­tered man­ner that it cur­rently is.

The post-Tiller­son visit re­sponse from two Asian cap­i­tals completes the pic­ture and points to the strate­gic im­port of the visit that had been sug­gested at the out­set. Bei­jing for­mally noted that Pak­istan has made a ‘pos­i­tive’ con­tri­bu­tion to­wards counter-ter­ror­ism and asked for mu­tual re­spect. Tokyo’s re­sponse was to com­mit it­self to ‘fur­ther co­op­er­a­tion’ in the Indo-Pa­cific and has pro­posed a quadri­lat­eral di­a­logue with the US, In­dia and Aus­tralia.

To the ex­tent that the Chi­nese foray into the In­dian Ocean lit­toral has been de­scribed as a string of pearls, will the Indo-Pa­cific re­gion soon be adorned with a di­a­mond neck­lace? A long-term strate­gic part­ner­ship that brings to­gether the ma­jor democ­ra­cies of the mar­itime do­main who re­main com­mit­ted to con­sen­sual rule of law; and eq­ui­table and en­vi­ron­men­tally com­pat­i­ble pros­per­ity.

Bring­ing China on board will be the Holy Grail.

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