October 28, 2017

Tillerson’s visit opens a window of opportunity that India must seize

The following article originally appeared in The Hindustan Times on October 28, 2017. 

In 2000, in the midst of a US election, George W Bush’s top foreign policy adviser Condoleezza Rice wrote an essay in Foreign Affairs that outlined the candidate’s worldview. Among other things, it recognised the importance of India, and the need to facilitate its rise as a balancer in Asia. The US “should pay closer attention to India’s role in the regional balance”, she wrote. “There is a strong tendency conceptually to connect India with Pakistan and to think only of Kashmir or the nuclear competition between the two states. But India is an element in China’s calculation, and it should be in America’s, too. India is not a great power yet, but it has the potential to emerge as one.” This may seem obvious today, but it was not widely recognised in the US at the time. Many Indians — including at the senior levels of government — were unimpressed. Why should India be dragged into America’s geopolitical games?

Five years later, Philip Zelikow, counsellor to Rice, now US secretary of state, said in a background briefing that the US wanted to “help India become a major world power in the 21st century”, adding, “we understand fully the implications, including the military implications, of that statement.” This sentiment similarly faced resistance in both Washington and New Delhi. Indeed, it was in part why the statement had to be couched in a background briefing rather than in a policy statement by a senior official. But after considerable debate and deliberation in both capitals, it manifested itself in a civil nuclear agreement and a defence framework agreement.

How times have changed. Recently, US secretary of state Rex Tillerson expressed rather the same sentiments in a public address — the first foreign policy speech in Washington by a senior Trump administration official on relations with an individual country. “The United States and India are increasingly global partners, with growing strategic convergence,” Tillerson said. “Indians and Americans don’t just share an affinity for democracy; we share a vision of the future. The emerging Delhi-Washington strategic partnership stands upon a shared commitment upholding the rule of law, freedom of navigation, universal values, and free trade.” Tillerson contrasted India with a China that challenges international law and norms, subverts the sovereignty of its neighbours, and disadvantages other countries through its predatory economic policies. In his subsequent visit to India, Tillerson reiterated those thoughts in meetings with Indian leaders.

The fact that Tillerson’s remarks were positively received in India signals just how far India has come. When the US and Japan agreed to send delegates to China’s Belt and Road Forum in May, it was India that took a principled stand and articulated its concerns. Today, both the US and Japan have come around to sharing India’s view about the Belt and Road Initiative, as have some others. Similarly, it is India that deployed military force to prevent Chinese unilateral expansionism in a third country at Doklam in June. India has shown itself capable of shouldering a burden in its neighbourhood and the Indian Ocean region, without being a burden on the US — an ideal partner for a US presidency that has often criticised its allies for not playing an adequate role as net security providers.

Today, rather than concern in India about being dragged into the US’ geopolitics, it is about keeping the US engaged in advancing India’s strategic interests. It is important to recognise that neither the US’ offers of support for India nor India’s desire for the US to play an active and supportive role in its region are motivated by sentiment. Rather, the two countries have a clear congruence of interests when it comes now to China’s rise and assertiveness, an open and secure Indian Ocean, a stable and democratic Afghanistan, and global counter-terrorism. The signal of receptivity on the part of the US to help address some core Indian challenges is an opening for New Delhi to now seize squarely. This window of opportunity will not remain open forever.

Equally, it will be important to better manage continuing differences, especially on Pakistan. The US under Donald Trump has shown a greater receptivity to Indian perspectives about dealing with Pakistan’s continued State support for terrorist organisations. What exactly Washington does about this remains a very open question. But if a shared vision of an India-US partnership is to be realised, it will now require concrete actions on the US’ part to recalibrate its Pakistan policy.