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
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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