A 100-year Vision

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On Eve Of New Delhi Visit, Secretary Of State Rex Tillerson Unveiled A New Global Role For India

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson gave an important foreign policy speech on India Oct. 18, at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Washington, D.C. (Photo:Kaveh Sardari, courtesy CSIS)

Declaring, “We share a vision of the future,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has unveiled a centennial roadmap marking a “profound transformation” in United States-India cooperation “in defense of a rules-based order” with New Delhi “fully embracing its potential as a leading player in the international security arena.”

The Secretary pointed to what he considered a “more profound transformation that’s taking place, one that will have far-reaching implications for the next 100 years: The United States and India are increasingly global partners with growing strategic convergence.”

Tillerson was speaking at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington Oct. 18 as he prepared for his first visit to India next week as a cabinet official.

“Our nations are two bookends of stability – on either side of the globe – standing for greater security and prosperity for our citizens and people around the world,” he said.

“President (Donald) Trump and Prime  Minister  (Narendra) Modi are committed, more than any other leaders before them, to building an ambitious partnership that benefits not only our two great democracies, but other sovereign nations working toward greater peace and stability,” he said.

Form & Substance

The speech gave form and substance to the administration’s policy towards India and not just South Asia, but the broader Indo-Pacific region stretching from the vulnerable western flank of the U.S.

It touched on a wide range of areas of cooperation ranging from military and defense to  economics and trade, and from promotion of democracy to freedom of navigation.

“Tillerson’s speech was one of the most thoughtful and forward leaning speeches from this administration,” asserted Jeff M. Smith, research fellow on South Asia at The Heritage Foundation.

The core of the cooperation between the U.S. and India and New Delhi’s enhanced role that Tillerson outlined lies in the Indo-Pacific region where the “world’s center of gravity is shifting” — an area where the Washington and its allies confront China, which he said “subverts the sovereignty of neighboring countries and disadvantages the U.S. and our friends.”

In effect, President Donald Trump’s point-man for foreign policy, just dramatically ratcheted up U.S. support for India’s role in the Indo-Pacific region vis-a-vis Beijing, delivering a clear message of preference for the democracy just as the Chinese Communist Party Congress was getting underway in Beijing, and days before Trump’ was scheduled to visit China.

India, Tillerson said in no uncertain terms, weighed heavier on the scale of strategic security and economic cooperation in Asia.

“We’ll never have the same relationship with China, a nondemocratic society, that we have with India,” asserted Tillerson during questions and answers after a speech. Tillerson outlined the game-plan for an Indo-Pacific region where Washington was already engaged with India and Japan, and hopes to rope in Australia to make a quartet countering China’s aggressive stance in the South China Sea.

In a wide-ranging speech that dwelt on defense and counterterrorism cooperation, and trade to cyberspace and the contributions of Indian-Americans, Tillerson committed Washington to “dramatically deepening” the bilateral relationship.

Noting the Indo-Pacific region which was home to more than 3 billion people, and several emerging economies, Tillerson predicted a “global shift” in the area’s marketshare and contended it was going to be the most consequential part of the globe over the next century.

Not mincing any words, Tillerson said, “We need to collaborate with India to ensure that the Indo-Pacific is increasingly a place of peace, stability, and growing prosperity – so that it does not become a region of disorder, conflict, and predatory economics,” clearly pointing at China.

“The emerging Delhi-Washington strategic partnership stands upon a shared commitment upholding the rule of law, freedom of navigation, universal values, and free trade,” he said, asserting further that, “Our nations are two bookends of stability – on either side of the globe – standing for greater security and prosperity for our citizens and people around the world.” Experts see this as the clearest statement of U.S. objectives vis-a-vis Asia and India, coming from this or previous administrations.

“The speech gave precedence to India over China – without qualifications,” asserted Smith.

Tillerson called the current challenges and dangers in the Indo-Pacific region, substantial, including terrorism, North Korea’s nuclear weapons, cyber attacks etc., all of which threaten India’s rise. “In this period of uncertainty and somewhat angst, India needs a reliable partner on the world stage.  I want to make clear:  with our shared values and vision for global stability, peace, and prosperity, the United States is that partner,” Tillerson said.

Doubling Down on Democracy

“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,” Tillerson maintained.  He accused China of “subverting the sovereignty of neighboring countries, thus disadvantaging the U.S. and our it’s friends.” Fighting words.

“It is indeed time to double down on a democratic partner that is still rising – and rising responsibly – for the next 100 years,” Tillerson said referring to India, and called for the two countries to “foster greater prosperity and security with the aim of a free and open Indo-Pacific.” The U.S.-India coordination in East Asia, Tillerson said, complimented India’s “Act East” policy.

“It was a very frank speech and sent a message as the Chinese party congress was meeting and Xi Jinping was talking about Beijing’s stature on the world stage,” said Walter Andersen, head of the South Asia Studies department at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.

On one issue of concern to India, One Belt, One Road (OBOR, Tillerson appeared to move closer to India’s position expressing skepticsm.

Tillerson’s message showed Washington has evolved from a position of cautious acceptance of OBOR initiative to one of skepticism, Smith said. It “more clearly articulated U.S. opposition to China’s One Belt One Road policy than any in this or previous administration.”

The OBOR initiative, considered the keystone of President Xi Jinping’s foreign and domestic policy,  includes roads and rail lines, oil pipelines, potential currency integration etc., along the old Silk Route going from central China all the way to Europe. While India critiqued the plan and refused to send a representative to the OBOR meeting held in China earlier this year, Washington sent an observer to the summit.

The changed position on OBOR evident from Tillerson’s speech was not least because of New Delhi, especially when such a shift was articulated at a meeting on foreign policy toward India, Smith contended. “So India has been lobbying U.S. on its opposition to OBOR,” Smith said, a Chinese initiative that is arguably the largest and most expensive economic and geo-strategic initiative, in his view.

This administration and those before it have made it clear that India is the pillar of stability. But calling the U.S. and India, “bookends” of stability on the global stage, shows there’s no sense of parity between China and India, analysts say.

The speech also included the usual tongue-lashing for Pakistan that this administration has been administering over the last couple of months, going so far as to threaten aid cuts if Islamabad does not act against internal terror groups that also threaten India, not just U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

No Hand Holding

While Pakistan is also a partner of the U.S. Tillerson said “We expect Pakistan to take decisive action against terror groups within its borders,” to improve not just security in South Asia, but to improve its international standing.

“It was a tough message, and no hand-holding,” Andersen said.

Experts took note of Tillerson’s definition of Afghanistan as a “regional” issue. If the threat of terror groups is removed in Afghanistan, “the greatest beneficiary would be Pakistan and Afghanistan,” he said answering a question on future U.S. policy. “So our message to the Taliban is ‘we’re not going anywhere. We’re going to be here as long as it takes’.”

Tillerson said Washington wished to be helpful in reducing tensions on the India-Pakistan border and pointed to the recent State Department declaration of the Hizb-ul Mujahideen which operates in Indian Kashmir, as a terror group. The U.S. and India, he said, are “leading the effort against terrorism” in the region.

Just as Tillerson was speaking at the CSIS, Vice President Mike Pence engaged in a call with Pakistan’s Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, and conveyed a qualified message of thanks to Islamabad.

According to a readout of the call provided by the White House, Pence thanked Abbasi for his government’s assistance in recovering U.S. and Canadian hostages that were being held captive by the Haqqani Taliban Network in the tribal areas of Pakistan. “Vice President Pence noted this effort as an important development in Pakistan’s support to the U.S. strategy against terrorism in the region, but highlighted that cooperation against militant groups must be continued and sustained.”

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