Tillerson Visit: Need to Tone Down the Euphoria
Dr Harinder Sekhon, Consultant, VIF

New Delhi was euphoric over United States (US) Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson’s recent remarks on “defining our relationship with India for the next century” made at a Washington DC think tank on the eve of his Asia visit, a five-stop tour that brings him to both India and Pakistan. In glowing references to India, Tillerson spoke about growing convergences between the two democracies in diverse areas like trade and economics, exchange of technologies, counter-terror cooperation and the global commons.

A major part of Tillerson’s speech was devoted to the challenges posed by a rising China through its provocative actions in the Indo-Pacific, and hence the need for India and the US to collaborate closely in facilitating regional connectivity that is essential to foster regional stability in this vital part of the world. Referring to India as one of the “bookends of the liberal order in Asia-Pacific”, Tillerson said, “The increasing convergence of US and Indian interests and values offers the Indo-Pacific the best opportunity to defend the rules based global system that has benefited so much of humanity over the past several decades, but it also comes with a responsibility for both of our countries to do the needful in support of our united vision of a free, open and thriving Indo Pacific.”

India should however temper its responses based on an objective assessment of the policies of the Trump administration that so far seem to lack reliability and consistency. It continues to be an uncertain period ahead for all under the Trump presidency, India included. India is definitely not in the forefront of the new administration’s concerns or priorities and it would need to anticipate both the potentially positive and negative developments that could occur and plan its diplomatic actions accordingly as is evident by the flips and flops in the Trump administration’s South Asia policy.

Barely two months ago, while enunciating a new South Asia strategy that committed to a larger role for India in stabilising Afghanistan, Trump boldly censured Pakistan for offering a safe haven to “terrorist organisations, the Taliban, and other groups that pose a threat to the region and beyond.” A month later, James Mattis, the US Defence Secretary, reiterated similar sentiments when he visited India and Afghanistan while he overflew Pakistan on his first visit to the region. US prioritisation of India over Pakistan seemed complete.

But more recently New Delhi has been delivered a clear message that the US road map in South Asia is taking a similar route as has been the case in the past. This follows the release of a Canadian American family held hostage by Jihadists in a Pakistan military operation, which led US president Trump to tweet that he was “Starting to develop a much better relationship with Pakistan and its leaders.” He further added, “We’re starting to have a real relationship with Pakistan…” This seems to imply a re-hyphenation of India and Pakistan once again. While India is recognized as a partner for peace and stability in Afghanistan, Pakistan, too remains an important US partner in South Asia at least till the US remains in Afghanistan and the US feels compelled to emphasize that “relationships in the region stand on their own merits.”

Though the annual US economic and security assistance to Pakistan that peaked at $3.5 billion in 2011, has been steadily declining largely due to pressure from the US Congress, the US cannot completely ignore the role of Pakistan in stabilising Afghanistan or stop aid disbursal through that country. In 2013, US forces had halted ground shipments of cargo to and from Afghanistan via its key Pakistan supply route which runs from Torkham Gate at the Afghanistan-Pakistan border to the Pakistani port city of Karachi. Presently, news reports in the DAWN mention that “a vessel carrying over 600 military vehicles, destined for US forces in Afghanistan, docked at the Karachi port” in June this year. These vehicles were reported to have been shipped from the port of Wilmington in North Carolina aboard the “MV Glovis Sun” along with other equipment. Similar consignments have been sent to Afghanistan in April and May of this year after the Trump administration announced its new South Asia strategy. While the US does have other options to supply its forces in Afghanistan, including shipments via the so-called Northern Distribution Network, a complex web of transit routes through Russia and Central Asia, these are costly and with Russia under renewed Western sanctions, a section of this route is not available.

So as the US prepares to dispatch more troops to Afghanistan, the Trump administration will need to consider how best to ensure military and economic access to landlocked Afghanistan. And here, all rhetoric aside, Donald Trump is an 'America-first' believer. He also has a transactional approach to running a government and crafting his policies. Therefore, one has to assume that he will keep the US' long-term interests in mind. It is thus logical that an India which is in sync with US long-term interests will get the maximum traction and mindshare. India therefore needs to craft its own responses carefully and get the maximum advantage by focusing on areas where its interests converge with those of the US, but at the same time ensuring that its policy choices are not “consistently framed by the US in terms of a US narrative.”

India’s task is by no means easy as even after ten months in office, there seems to be a massive policy paralysis in Washington as President Trump tries to give direction to his priorities. The Trump administration is yet to become fully functional as appointments to key positions have been slow. There are no officials still in the State Department, for instance, to deal with India. In fact there are indications that the South Asia Bureau in the State Department may well be abolished since Trump has announced budget cuts on that Department. India could be made a part of the East Asia Bureau while Pakistan would become part of the Near East Division. Such a move would bring India into the larger East Asian framework where China will naturally get more attention, thus deflecting the focus away from our core interests over our land borders where we face more serious cross-border challenges. The higher bureaucracy in other Departments is also not in position to shape India policy and the senior most appointment made recently in the National Security Council is that of Senior Director for South Asia. Nor has the new Ambassador assumed office in New Delhi so far.

While US-India relations are on a stable upward trajectory, there remain irritants that hinder the relationship from reaching the next levels. These include US role and policies in India’s neighborhood, a lack of clarity on the China-Pakistan defense and economic ties, divergent Intellectual Property Rights standards between India and the US, and Foreign Direct Investment caps. The US and India must however continue to engage in an open dialogue to address these issues. If they carry on doing so, there is hope that this friendship can become the most significant partnership of the 21st Century.

While there is deep and genuine appreciation for India and the role India has played in being an important US partner in a difficult region, there needs to be a broader vision in US strategic thinking that would move US policy beyond mere “fashion statements” that ring hollow. With the US, the meaning of a strategic partnership seems to be very different from what is actually the need of the hour. India would therefore do well to prepare its own road map based on its core interests by securing its place on its periphery through closer regional cooperation.

(Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the VIF)


Image Source: https://www.nbcnews.com/news/world/rex-tillerson-skip-key-nato-summit-plans-travel-russia-

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India should negotiate to get a permanent seat on UN Security council with Tillerson as US is willinn to trade India as more reliable partner to Pakistan.

 

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