Tiller­son’s pas­sage to In­dia sends a mes­sage

Amer­ica’s in­ter­ests in the Indo-Pa­cific are linked to In­dia, and a part­ner­ship with New Delhi would up­hold the lib­eral in­ter­na­tional or­der

Gulf News - - Opinion - Spe­cial to Gulf News

S Sec­re­tary of State Rex Tiller­son’s just-con­cluded visit to In­dia was not merely about deep­en­ing de­fence and eco­nomic ties with In­dia which is seen as an im­por­tant strate­gic part­ner; it was also a reaf­fir­ma­tion of US in­ter­est to forge closer ties be­tween “sis­ter democ­ra­cies” — be­tween the world’s most pow­er­ful democ­racy and the world’s largest — be­sides send­ing a strong mes­sage against China’s grow­ing as­sertive­ness in Asia.

Even be­fore he ar­rived in In­dia, Tiller­son had bluntly crit­i­cised China and Pak­istan in a speech de­liv­ered on Oc­to­ber 18 at the Cen­tre for Strate­gic and In­ter­na­tional Stud­ies (CSIS) in Wash­ing­ton DC; US pun­dits note that it was no co­in­ci­dence that both De­fence Sec­re­tary Jim Mat­tis and Tiller­son vis­ited In­dia in quick suc­ces­sion fol­low­ing In­dia’s tense 70day long Dokhlam stand­off with China at the Bhutan bor­der.

The Chi­nese clearly had two rea­sons to avoid es­ca­lat­ing the stand­off into an armed con­flict against In­dia: firstly, the mil­i­tary con­flict threat­ened to also dis­rupt China’s eco­nomic growth, and frighten away in­vestors; and, se­condly, an armed con­flict could have led In­dian Prime Min­is­ter Naren­dra Modi to can­cel his par­tic­i­pa­tion in the Brics sum­mit early Septem­ber in Xi­a­men chaired by China. Modi’s ab­sence would have been a pub­lic em­bar­rass­ment for China which projects it­self as the ris­ing su­per­power that can bring the world’s mostim­por­tant emerg­ing economies un­der its wings.

Alarmed by the Dokhlam stand­off, the In­di­ans showed keen in­ter­est in Tiller­son’s of­fer of in­creased co­op­er­a­tion with In­dia in de­fence and strate­gic mat­ters. In­dia is open to a strong part­ner­ship, short of a mil­i­tary al­liance, with the US.

In­ter­est­ingly, Tiller­son noted that se­cu­rity is­sues of con­cern to In­dia are also the con­cerns of the United States. This is a new el­e­ment in US rhetoric, im­ply­ing that the US re­jects Chi­nese and Pak­istani ter­ri­to­rial claims on In­dia and that it will sup­port In­dia to ad­dress any threats to its se­cu­rity from any quar­ter. Time alone will tell how se­ri­ous the US is about sup­port­ing In­dia against China. While Pak­istan was told to erad­i­cate ter­ror­ist cells from its soil, it was also urged to pick the low-hang­ing fruit in the form of trade and eco­nomic ben­e­fits in co­op­er­a­tion with In­dia. Af­ter all, Pak­istan’s “all-weather friend” China, de­spite its own bor­der dis­pute with In­dia, has been reap­ing the ben­e­fits of its grow­ing eco­nomic and trade ties with In­dia.

In­deed, the US wants Pak­istan to ap­pre­ci­ate that In­dia’s role in Afghanistan’s de­vel­op­ment will also ben­e­fit Pak­istan it­self, open­ing up new trade op­por­tu­ni­ties for Pak­istan with both its eastern and western neigh­bours. The US hopes that with the pas­sage of time Pak­istan will shed its angst over an In­dian role in Afghanistan.

Ap­par­ently, China does not like the idea of In­dia mov­ing closer to the US, but it has it­self to blame for this de­vel­op­ment. China’s Dokhlam mis­ad­ven­ture has only pushed In­dia into a tighter US em­brace. Dokhlam also gave the Chi­nese a re­al­ity check; ex­pect­ing In­dia to dis­play its usual lack­adaisi­cal at­ti­tude dur­ing past Chi­nese in­cur­sions into In­dia’s north­east­ern ter­ri­tory from Ti­bet, the Chi­nese were sur­prised by the fierce re­sis­tance put up by the In­di­ans.

A full-fledged war is the least suit­able way to set­tle ter­ri­to­rial dis­putes be­tween nu­clear pow­ers. Each nu­clear-armed coun­try has the ca­pa­bil­ity to strike back at its ad­ver­sary if the other ever starts a war. The Chi­nese and In­di­ans were quick to recog­nise this; the ten­sions were not al­lowed to es­ca­late into a mil­i­tary con­flict. Be­sides check­ing China, the US in­ter­est in closer ties with In­dia is mo­ti­vated by eco­nomic rea­sons. Pun­dits in North Amer­ica note that In­dia’s GDP, which has al­ready crossed the $2 tril­lion (Dh7.34 tril­lion) mark, at cur­rent ex­change rates, ex­ceeds the economies of Canada and Italy, both of which are mem­bers of the pres­ti­gious G-7 club. In­deed, US gov­ern­ment pro­jec­tions suggest that In­dia is surg­ing ahead to be­come the world’s third-largest econ­omy by 2029, trail­ing be­hind only China and the US. Th­ese can trans­late into op­por­tu­ni­ties for US com­pa­nies.

Wash­ing­ton is also im­pressed by what it calls In­dia’s ca­pa­bil­ity as a “net provider of re­gional se­cu­rity”, demon­strated by In­dia’s abil­ity to res­cue some 1,000 for­eign ci­ti­zens, in­clud­ing Amer­i­cans, stranded in Ye­men.

In his CSIS speech, Tiller­son said that the world’s cen­tre of grav­ity is shift­ing to the heart of the Indo-Pa­cific (US and Euro­pean politi­cians in­creas­ingly use the term Indo-Pa­cific in­stead of Asia-Pa­cific). In­deed, US strate­gic and eco­nomic in­ter­ests in the Indo-Pa­cific are in­ex­orably linked to In­dia, he said, sig­nalling US de­sire to forge a re­la­tion­ship with In­dia that would up­hold the lib­eral in­ter­na­tional or­der in a way that China does not.

Tiller­son said that China, un­like demo­cratic In­dia, is un­der­min­ing the in­ter­na­tional, rules-based or­der and sovereignty of neigh­bour­ing coun­tries, cit­ing China’s provoca­tive ac­tions in the South China Sea.

While the US is keen to build In­dia as a coun­ter­weight to China, par­tic­u­larly in the Indo-Pa­cific re­gion, In­dia and US could join hands against a com­mon ad­ver­sary, known to lay ter­ri­to­rial claims based on its own in­ter­pre­ta­tion of “his­tor­i­cal facts”.

The US-In­dia part­ner­ship — In­di­ans are al­ler­gic to the term “al­liance” — could help deal with chal­lenges cre­ated by China’s ex­pan­sion­ism in many parts of Asia, in­clud­ing in the South China Sea where China is ag­gres­sively build­ing up ar­ti­fi­cial is­lands to lay claims to the re­gion’s rich min­eral re­sources by cre­at­ing a fait ac­com­pli sit­u­a­tion in its favour and dis­re­gard­ing le­git­i­mate claims of oth­ers.

Manik Mehta is a New York-based jour­nal­ist with ex­ten­sive writ­ing ex­pe­ri­ence on for­eign af­fairs, diplo­macy global eco­nom­ics and in­ter­na­tional trade.

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