Tillerson's speech and his vision for India-US ties in the decades ahead
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s speech on October 18 at a Washington DC-based think tank is important as it tells us how the US views India as a partner in the years ahead.
It is not the first enunciation of the Trump administration’s approach towards India.
The joint statement issued on the occasion of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to the US in June this year offered a fairly comprehensive view of bilateral relations as seen by both sides.
It is the first time, however, that in this administration the State Department chief has pronounced at length on ties with India.
If the State Department is seen in New Delhi as inclined negatively towards India traditionally, Tillerson’s speech would come as a surprise.
It outlines a vision of India-US ties in the decades ahead that is so positive that many in India would view it with scepticism, keeping in mind the difficulties of the past and the uncertainties of the future.
The thrust of the speech is on the partnership between the two countries in the Indo-Pacific region to maintain peace and security there, with the China factor in view.
So far the US has bottled up China in the western Pacific because of the strength of US naval presence in the region and its alliances there.
China can loosen this grip by developing a powerful navy of its own and consequently acquire the capacity to independently protect its trade and energy flows through the Indian Ocean which are at present vulnerable to disruption in a conflict situation.
The only country that has the potential to seriously disturb the existing maritime order in the Indo-Pacific is China, which announced in May 2015 its new maritime strategy that would see the PLA Navy developing a blue water navy capable of protecting the security of its sea lanes of communications and overseas interests.
This means a stronger presence of the Chinese navy in the Indian Ocean which, in turn, implies a successful challenge to US naval power in the western Pacific.
In January 2015, Modi and Barack Obama had signed the US-India Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and India Ocean Regions.
In the joint statement issued on the occasion of Modi’s June visit, this document was not referred to by name, though the shared interest of the two countries in ensuring freedom of navigation and overflights in the Indo-Pacific region and resolution of territorial and maritime disputes there in accordance with international law was mentioned.
Beijing would have taken such a formulation in its stride, considering it standard and defensive in nature, unaccompanied as it has been by any push back.
Tillerson’s speech on October 18, however, constitutes a sharper warning to China about its conduct and US readiness to contain its maritime ambitions in partnership with others in the Indo-Pacific.
His adverse comments on China in a speech focused on India is unusual and cannot but heighten China’s concerns about deepening India-US strategic ties which it views as an American ploy to contain its rise.
In Tillerson’s view, China, unlike India, is undermining the international, rules-based order and sovereignty of neighbouring countries.
He also cited China’s provocative actions in the South China Sea, all of which he warned the US will resist.
In language hitherto not used so openly by US leaders, Tillerson stated that in this period of uncertainty India needs a reliable partner on the world stage and that partner is the United States.
The world — and the Indo-Pacific in particular — needs the United States and India to have a strong partnership, he affirmed.
America’s concerns about China’s increasing challenge to US power in the Asia-Pacific region are obviously growing, though it is not yet clear how far Donald Trump is willing to go to counter Xi Jinping’s declared ambition to take centre-stage in international affairs, an objective that requires that the US cede sufficient geo-strategic and geo-economic space to it.
After Xi has ascended to power, it is clear that China is building itself not only as a counter to US global power but also as a competing model with ‘values’ that differ from those of the West.
The timing of Tillerson’s speech is significant. It has been made on the same day as the opening of the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China in Beijing, with Trump’s slated visit to China in November this year too in mind.
The Doklam episode, which saw China’s efforts to bully India in unbridled language and India’s determination to stand up to Beijing in a new show of confidence, could also have been a factor in the timing, besides adding pressure on China to cooperate more on the North Korean issue.
True to American diplomatic style, Tillerson’s speech contains much rhetoric. He believes that the US and India are increasingly global partners with growing strategic convergence, which is a profound transformation with far-reaching implications for the next 100 years.
It is very difficult to accept such overblown assertions at face value or dismiss them as verbiage when our interest lies in improving and consolidating bilateral ties.
Our challenge is to accept the US embrace but not be smothered by it and ensure that our other partners do not conclude that we have changed the orbit of our foreign policy.