New Delhi: Indian foreign minister Sushma Swaraj and US secretary of state Rex Tillerson are expected to reaffirm their strategic partnership as they sit down for talks on a wide array of issues spanning the regional to the bilateral.
Tillerson, on his first visit to India, arrived in New Delhi late Tuesday after a stop in Pakistan. He is the second top-level Trump administration official to come visiting in the space of a month. Last month, India had hosted US secretary of defence James Mattis.
The top US diplomat’s stop in New Delhi follows two major foreign policy speeches from the Trump administration in recent months sketching out critical roles for India in South Asia as well as in the Indo-Pacific region.
On 21 August, US President Donald Trump in a speech outlining Washington’s reworked strategy for Afghanistan, projected a definite role for India for stabilizing the war-torn country economically.
And days before his India visit, Tillerson sketched out a crucial role for India in maintaining stability in the Asia-Pacific region—along with partners like Japan and Australia, besides the US. This was against the backdrop of the unpredictable rise of China.
“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 a speech at the Washington-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies last week. “We need to collaborate with India to ensure that the Indo-Pacific is increasingly a place of peace, stability, and growing prosperity—so that it does not become a region of disorder, conflict, and predatory economics," he said later.
“The Trump administration is determined to dramatically deepen ways for the United States and India to further this partnership," Tillerson said.
“We’re going to have important relationships with China. We’ll never have the same relationship with China, a non-democratic society, that we can have with a major democracy," the US top diplomat said—an indicator of the kind of partnership that could evolve between the world’s oldest and largest democracies.
Here’s a look at why the Swaraj-Tillerson meeting is seen as important to take ties to the next level:
Tillerson’s visit to the region gives India and Washington an opportunity to gauge first-hand what each other’s priorities are at a time of unprecedented shift in regional and global politics, said Harsh V. Pant, a professor of international relations at the London-based King’s College. There are wrinkles in the relationship—the US position on limiting H1B visas, popular with Indian IT professionals is one. Another is the US position on Iran. India sees Iran as a gateway for its plans to bypass Pakistan and seek out an alternate route to Afghanistan. With Trump refusing to certify that Iran is living up to its 2015 international agreement commitments and Congress to decide whether to impose sanctions on Iran as a consequence, India will be keen to seek clarity on the subject from the US.
In his speech last week, Tillerson said that “security issues that concern India are concerns of the United States". Analysts say that in the past, though the US has spoken out against terrorism, there was always a distinction made between terrorism directed against India and terrorism threats directed against the US and Western countries. This was due in part because Pakistan was providing key logistics support for the US and other international troops in Afghanistan.
Another reason was that Pakistan extended intelligence cooperation to the US and other Western countries that led to detection of terrorist plots. A case in point: in 2006, British and Pakistani authorities teamed up to thwart a plot to smuggle liquid explosives onto some 10 passenger aircraft leaving Britain for the US, blowing them up mid-flight over the Atlantic.
A third reason was that Pakistan had been able to successfully convince Western countries that terrorist activities in India were the result of the non-resolution of the decades-old Kashmir dispute.
However, with the Trump administration seemingly charting a course different from his predecessors—ie demanding that Pakistan suspend cross-border terrorism and asking that India play a larger role in stabilising Afghanistan (something previous US administrations have been shy of doing for fear of upsetting Islamabad)—it may take India-US ties to the next level.
Tillerson’s speech last week made a clear distinction between India, which adhered to international rules, and China, which is seen as undermining the international rules-based order. There was an invitation to India to increase its role in the Indo-Pacific. India has in the past been seen as reluctant to upset China. (One recalls how then US defence secretary Leon Panetta in 2012 had described India as the “linchpin" of the US “Pivot" to Asia strategy, a role India declined to take up.) But with the Narendra Modi government in power and seen as keen to position India in the role of a “leading" power, it will be interesting to see whether and how India takes the US on its invite.