Amid churn in Indo-Pacific, US plays India versus China game

Ahead of his maiden visit to India, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has projected the US as the reliable partner India needs and positioned New Delhi and Washington as two “two bookends of stability” in the Indo-Pacific region which is being challenged by China’s “irresponsible” rise.

Courting India ahead of his first official visit to New Delhi next week, Mr Tillerson projected an upbeat trajectory of the India-US relations that have been on an upswing ever since President Donald Trump assumed office earlier this year. In a defining foreign policy speech at an American think tank, Center for Strategic and International Studies, Mr. Tillerson said that the US is “determined to dramatically deepen ways” to build an “ambitious partnership” with India, particularly with an eye on the Indo-Pacific region and China, which will have “far-reaching implications for the next 100 years.”

Outlining his administration’s India policy and echoing Mr. Trump’s oft expressed “true friend” sentiment towards India, he said, “In this period of uncertainty and angst, India needs a reliable partner on the world stage. The United States is that partner.”

Mr. Tillerson’s speech focussed on the centrality of the Indo-Pacific region in the 21st century and the importance of stepping up collaboration with India so that the two nations can “serve as the eastern and western beacons of the Indo-Pacific”. “We need to collaborate with India… so that it does not become a region of disorder, conflict, and predatory economics,” said the top US diplomat taking a jab at China’s growing activities in the region.

Comparing India and China: What’s cooking?

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“The very international order that has benefited India’s rise — and that of many others — is increasingly under strain. 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,” he said calling out China’s provocative actions in the South China Sea.

Answering a question on predatory economics that countries need to be alert about, Mr. Tillerson elaborated: “We have watched the activities and actions of others in the region, in particular China, and the financing mechanisms it brings to many of these countries which result in saddling them with enormous levels of debt.” He also signalled that a quiet conversation had already begun with countries in the region to create alternative financing mechanisms. “We will not be able to compete with the kind of terms that China offers, but countries have to decide: What are they willing to pay to secure their sovereignty and their future control of their economies? And we’ve had those discussions with them,” he said, in a veiled reference to China’s ambitious One Belt, One Road project.

Underscoring how the United States and India are increasingly global partners with growing strategic convergence, Mr. Tillerson said that “Indians and Americans don’t just share an affinity for democracy. We share a vision of the future.” While Mr. Tillerson will be travelling to South Asia to push his administration’s new policy, President Trump will embark on a whirlwind trip to Japan, China, South Korea besides Southeast Asian countries like Vietnam and Philippines next month.

Will India play the game?

Going by Mr Tillerson’s comments, it would appear that the US is pushing for a renewed China containment strategy, with India as a key balancer against China’s assertiveness. Should India offer to be part of this strategy? Opinion is divided among India’s strategic establishment. Meera Shankar, India’s former ambassador to the US, has struck a note of caution. “It’s a culmination of the trend of strengthening strategic partnerships in the region by the US to balance China,” Mrs Shankar told India Writes Network. “A stronger India will ipso facto act as a balancer, without getting into overt containment strategy,” she said. The US should help to bolster India’s rise and capabilities, she said.

 US-Pakistan: Uneasy partnership

Mr. Tillerson will also be travelling to Pakistan and a few other countries in the region during his upcoming visit to South Asia. Talking about Pakistan, he said, “Pakistan, too, is an important US partner in South Asia. Our relationships in the region stand on their own merits.” However, he added that Washington expects Islamabad to take more decisive steps against terror groups within its borders. Pakistan has been at the receiving end of the US administration’s ire in the last few months when Mr. Trump laid out his Afghanistan strategy and pulled up Islamabad for not doing enough to rein in terrorist groups operating from its territory even as he envisaged a greater role for India in Afghanistan.

Tillerson’s India Mantra (In His Own Words)

  • Our nations (India–US) 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.

 

  • The United States seeks constructive relations with China, but we will not shrink from China’s challenges to the rules-based order and where China subverts the sovereignty of neighbouring countries and disadvantages the US and our friends.

 

  • India and the United States should be in the business of equipping other countries to defend their sovereignty, build greater connectivity, and have a louder voice in a regional architecture that promotes their interests and develops their economies.

 

  • India can also serve as a clear example of a diverse, dynamic, and pluralistic country to others – a flourishing democracy in the age of global terrorism. The sub-continent is the birthplace of four of the world’s major religions.

 

  • We expect Pakistan to take decisive action against terrorist groups based within their own borders that threaten their own people and the broader region. In doing so, Pakistan furthers stability and peace for itself and its neighbours, and improves its own international standing.

 

  • When our (India-US) militaries conduct joint exercises, we send a powerful message as to our commitment to protecting the global commons and defending our people.

 

  • It is time we act on our vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific, supported and protected by two strong pillars of democracy – the United States and India.
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