It can’t be mere coincidence that US secretary of state Rex Tillerson’s first major foreign policy speech on 18 October was about America’s relations with India. The address, delivered on the eve of his visit to South Asia, was described by a think tank official in Washington as America’s ‘love letter’ to India.
India has steadily risen in the estimation of the Trump administration, particularly since the visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Washington in June. The term ‘Indo-Pacific region’ appeared prominently in the joint statement issued by President Donald Trump and Modi at the end of the latter’s visit. Since then, it has come into vogue in Washington’s official circles as a substitute—some would say replacement—for ‘Asia–Pacific region’, the term traditionally used to describe the vast expanse stretching from India to Japan, Australia, and beyond. This change emphasises both the importance of the Indian Ocean in US military strategy and the increasing geo-political prominence of India in American policy.
In his speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Tillerson stressed that India and America are ‘two bookends of stability—on either side of the globe’ and that the ‘emerging Delhi–Washington strategic partnership’ is needed to anchor the rules-based world order for the next hundred years. His emphasis on the terms ‘strategic partnership’ and ‘rules-based world order’ acquired greater significance when in the same speech he characterised China (India’s chief competitor if not major antagonist in Asia) as a ‘destabilizing force’ in the region and accused Beijing of ‘provocative actions in the South China Sea [that] directly challenge the international law and norms that the United States and India both stand for’.
Tillerson’s choice of words in describing India’s and China’s respective roles in the Indo-Pacific region clearly sent the signal that the US considers India an ally, not only in the traditional strategic sense but also as a partner in the shaping of a future world order based on rules and norms. In contrast, he implied that China is a habitual violator of international norms and America’s principal military and political adversary in the region. Although the Trump administration’s assessment of India’s role and potential as an ally builds on the policies pursued by the Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations, this formulation clearly states what was only implied in the earlier administrations’ approaches to India.
That’s music to Indian ears. Furthermore, the Indian foreign policy establishment has found Tillerson’s references to Pakistan, both in the CSIS speech and during his subsequent visit to South Asia, even more exhilarating. While praising India to the skies, the secretary of state told high-ranking Pakistani officials that the US will no longer tolerate Islamabad’s patronage of terrorist groups operating from Pakistani territory and bent on destabilising Afghanistan. In his CSIS speech, Tillerson declared that the US expects ‘Pakistan to take decisive action against terrorist groups based there that threaten its own people and the broader region’. During his stopover in Kabul on the way to Pakistan, the secretary of state said he will pressure Islamabad to take action on the support that the Taliban and other terrorist organisations receive. He also made it clear that future US aid to Pakistan will be ‘conditions-based … It will be based upon whether they take action that we feel is necessary to move the process forward for both creating opportunity for reconciliation and peace in Afghanistan but also ensuring a stable future Pakistan’.
Most, if not all, of Tillerson’s statements about Pakistan concentrated on the twin and interrelated issues of terrorism and Pakistan’s role in the ongoing civil strife in Afghanistan. It’s commonly acknowledged in Washington that in Afghanistan Pakistan clandestinely supports the Taliban while ostensibly behaving like an ally of the US. There’s also considerable apprehension within policymaking circles in the US that Islamabad’s formidable nuclear arsenal may fall into the hands of Islamic extremists because of the increasingly radical atmosphere and chaotic conditions in the country.
The secretary’s interaction with Pakistani leaders was remarkably different in both tone and content from the statements he made in New Delhi. In India, his emphasis was on larger global and regional issues and the possibilities of cooperation between India and the US in tackling those issues. Pakistan was hardly mentioned. That was a clear signal—if one was needed—that the US no longer links the two South Asian rivals when formulating policies towards the region.
American interests in Pakistan derive from Washington’s concerns about terrorism and stability in Afghanistan, where American forces continue to be engaged in that country’s longest war. Relations with India, on the other hand, are treated independently of those local concerns, and are linked with broader issues of global and regional stability.
It was clear from Tillerson’s remarks that the US sees India as a major regional bulwark against the expansion of Chinese influence and power. The secretary of state more than once emphasised, even if tacitly, that India and the US share the strategic goal of curbing Chinese power and must work together politically and militarily towards that end. While the Indians didn’t openly dispute Tillerson’s thesis on China (and indeed probably agreed with it in their heart of hearts), they didn’t endorse it publicly.
President Trump’s aptitude for frequently sending contradictory signals—as he did recently regarding Pakistan—make the Indians wary of taking the secretary of state’s exuberance at face value. More importantly, geographic and economic constraints make it difficult for India to take an overtly anti-China stance, despite occasional crises erupting on its borders with China and an unstated geo-political rivalry between the two Asian giants. One hopes that Washington understands those constraints and will make haste slowly in its courtship of India.