New Delhi was obviously pleased with the underlying theme of the homily and called it an optimistic view.
US secretary of state Rex Tillerson’s landmark address in Washington on relations with India and China is notable on at least two counts — its effusiveness towards New Delhi and an invitation to take on China with Washington in the Indo-Pacific region.
The timing of Mr Tillerson’s speech is important. It is in advance of his first visit to the subcontinent this week and was delivered hours after Chinese President Xi Jinping’s marathon performance at his party congress declaring triumphantly that the moment for China to take centrestage in the world had arrived.
New Delhi was obviously pleased with the underlying theme of the homily and called it an optimistic view. But the implicit challenge posed to India in guiding its future policies cannot be escaped. New Delhi has decidedly moved closer to the US in the defence and strategic relationship partly as a safeguard against Beijing’s assertiveness but the implication that Washington can fire its guns at Beijing on India’s shoulders is another matter.
India’s hesitation in signing on as America’s foot soldier, unlike Pakistan, is not only the result of a traditional nonaligned policy in a vastly changed geopolitical environment, but also stems from a desire to keep options open in a predatory world. It could not have escaped American officials that even while welcoming Mr Tillerson’s overtures, India and Russia were conducting trilateral military exercises. Besides, finance minister Arun Jaitley has announced that relations with Iran. Washington’s bete noire, would not undergo a change.
Mr Tillerson’s coming New Delhi visit will give Indian leaders and officials an opportunity to flesh out the contours of how Washington looks at India. The convergences are obvious, such as bringing in Japan into the equation of warding off an assertive China. But Prime Minister Narendra Modi must balance his nation’s own problems with Beijing and the need to maintain good relations with Russia, painted as an enemy in American eyes.
The question New Delhi can’t avoid is that it’s reaching a fork in ties with the US. The closeness of the relationship can’t be doubted, but the longevity of an unpredictable Trump era is an open question although Mr Modi’s own equation with the US President is good.
For India, it’s not a question of looking a gift horse in the mouth, but one of reordering its wider relations with an eye on its neighbourhood, specially with two hostile neighbours, and the coming together after a fashion of Russia and China. The importance of New Delhi’s understanding with the US isn’t in doubt but its contours must be worked on to avoid any future misunderstanding.
To an extent, all nations are limited by their circumstances. In India’s case, the subcontinent’s bloody Partition set the tone for relations with Pakistan. In China’s case, the stinging defeat in the 1962 war and a disputed border with exaggerated Chinese demands after its seizure of Tibet have led to a stalemate until Beijing feels it’s strong enough to extract a high price.
These crosses remain with us although Washington’s policies on Pakistan and the military and economic assistance it has got over decades have vastly complicated New Delhi’s task of containing Islamabad’s adventurist policies. The one change the Trump administration brought about is the bluntness with which it warned Pakistan to turn over a new leaf in giving up terrorism as a state policy.
Here again, US consistency remains in doubt. Pakistani troops helped free a US-Canadian couple from Afghan extremists’ five-year captivity on the basis of US information, to be greeted by an effusive pro-Pakistan tweet by President Trump. According to the CIA, the couple and their children born in captivity were held in Pakistani territory.
Some of these problems Mr Tillerson can’t resolve, given the nature of the Trump presidency. Indeed, Mr Trump’s tendency publicly to snub and contradict his secretary of state is well known. But given the limitations the visiting head of America’s foreign office suffers from, he can elucidate the US projection of India’s role in the Indo-Pacific.
Perhaps Mr Tillerson’s Pakistan visit before reaching India will give New Delhi a better idea of the state of play between the two countries. However, it cannot escape US policymakers that Washington is playing a weak hand in projecting its policies to the world, given the tenets of President Trump’s faith. President Trump has touted the “America First” philosophy and has signalled in various ways his desire to follow a circumscribed international policy. He withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, so elaborately built up by his predecessor, gave notice to leave the Paris climate agreement as well as Unesco, and is shaking his fists at the tripartite trade agreement with Canada and Mexico.
These moves have enabled China to take a leadership role in freeing it of a potential anti-China trade alliance, and President Xi took pleasure in wearing the cloak of world leadership on warding off climate change. The new US thrust against China comes in the wake of the realisation that Beijing will look after its own interests, rather than pander to Mr Trump’s priorities.
There was a time not long ago when Mr Trump hosted Mr Xi at his Florida resort more as a pupil learning the game of geopolitics than a meeting of equals. The US President’s foolish hope was that, given the nature of the Beijing-Pyongyang relationship, Mr Xi would help Washington with disciplining North Korea on its nuclear programme. Mr Trump was to be deeply disappointed and resorted to the extravagant rhetoric of “sound and fury” against North Korea. China did in the end make symbolic gestures, that have not reduced the American dilemma of there being few viable alternatives to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s determination to perfect nuclear weapons and their missile launchers.
Given these circumstances, it is still useful for India and the US to hold a strategic dialogue with Mr Tillerson in New Delhi.