Secretary of state Rex Tillerson pitches for greater cooperation between India and US ahead of visit
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Secretary of state Rex Tillerson pitches for greater cooperation between India and US ahead of visit

Tillerson called India and the US “two bookends of stability” on either side of the globe.

world Updated: Oct 18, 2017 23:43 IST
Yashwant Raj
Yashwant Raj
Hindustan Times, Washington
United States of America,India,US
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson participates in a first meeting of the US National Space Council at the National Air and Space Museum's Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia, U.S. October 5, 2017. (Reuters File Photo)

US secretary of state Rex Tillerson on Wednesday made a strong pitch for greater cooperation with India to tackle global threats and challenges such as ensuring a “free and open” Indo-Pacific region in the face of a predatory China.

He stressed that while the United States wants to work with India and any other nation to counter terrorism, it still sees Pakistan as a valuable partner and will work with Islamabad and New Delhi to reduce tensions along the country’s eastern border with India and the western border with Afghanistan.

Tillerson did not explain what steps, if any, were being considered by the US for easing tensions along the India-Pakistan border, the mere prospect of which might cause concern in New Delhi, which has historically opposed any third-country or party intervention.

The secretary, who will travel to India next week as part of a three-nation tour that will also take him to Pakistan and Afghanistan, offered the most blunt assessment yet by an US official of China’s rise in the context of relations with India and the region, speaking more approvingly of India.

“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 said in an address at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank.

“China’s provocative actions in the South China Sea directly challenge the international law and norms that the US and India both stand for.”

Tillerson was scathing in his criticism of China’s aggression: “The US seeks constructive relations with China. But we won’t shrink from China’s challenges to the rules-based order, or where China subverts the sovereignty of neighbouring countries, and disadvantages the US and our friends.”

And in these times of uncertainty, he added, “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 US is that partner.”

He went on to offer a lofty framework for ties with India, saying, “The emerging Delhi-Washington strategic partnership stands upon a shared commitment upholding the rule of law, freedom of navigation, universal values, and free trade. 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.”

Tillerson also spoke of growing defence ties and the “menu of defence options” that the US has provided to India to choose from —Sea Guardian naval drones, joint production of the F-16 and F-18 and aircraft carrier platform — and said security issues that concern India also concern the US.

He did not hesitate to mention challenges in the relationship with India, especially in trade and economy, and pressed on the need for New Delhi to stay the course on reforms.

Tillerson spoke of the need to expand trilateral engagement between the US, Japan and India, which now have joint military exercises, to include countries such as Australia to secure the Indo-Pacific region that is home to three billion people, and is the focal point of the world’s energy and trade routes.

He also said the US expects Pakistan to take “decisive action against terrorist groups” based on its soil. Such a move would ensure peace and stability in the region and improve Pakistan’s international standing, he added.

Describing India as a partner in Afghanistan, Tillerson said, “As we implement President Trump’s new South Asia strategy, we will turn to our partners to ensure greater stability in Afghanistan…India is a partner for peace in Afghanistan and we welcome its assistance efforts.”

He added that the US and India are jointly screening known and suspected terrorists and will convene a new dialogue on terrorist designations.

Noting that India has more than 170 million Muslims, the third-largest Muslim population in the world, Tillerson said: “Yet we do not encounter significant numbers of Indian Muslims among foreign fighters in the ranks of ISIS or other terror groups, which speaks to the strengths of Indian society.”

Ashley Tellis, a leading US expert on Asia at Carnegie, said: “Despite the still pervasive fears that America First means an isolationist foreign policy, Tillerson affirmed the continuing primacy of the Indo-Pacific in US grand strategy, the pivotal role of the US-India partnership in securing the Indo-Pacific, and the sharp contrast between India as a responsible emerging power and China which has behaved less than responsibly.

“This is a clear roadmap for the bilateral relationship going forward – and a ringing endorsement of the strategic partnership whose significance is defined in global terms.”

Tellis also said Tillerson’s offer – to advance each other’s security, sovereignty and interests while working together to make the Indo-Pacific a more secure place for others – was “an invitation to India: now the only question is whether New Delhi will respond as fulsomely as is necessitated by its own interests”.

Tanvi Madan, a South Asia expert with Brookings, found Tillerson blunt on China being “less responsible as it rises” and added the “do the needful”, a phrase the secretary had used, was a “motto for this next phase of the relationship…there’s convergence, now there must be more or better implementation”.

First Published: Oct 18, 2017 22:02 IST