Home Global Village What should India expect from Tillerson?

What should India expect from Tillerson?

Tillerson

M K Bhadrakumar |

The visit by the US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on October 24 will be hugely consequential for India’s relations with China and Pakistan.

Tillerson has given advance notice to the Modi government that a proposed 100-year alliance between the US and India is on his mind. Delhi has been circumspect – curious but diffident. High-flown rhetoric is not unusual for American dignitaries visiting India. The US-Indian relations were once called the ‘defining partnership of the 21st century’. The two countries also thought they were ‘natural allies’.

China behind the scenes, brings about a genuine shift in the Pakistani policies vis-à-vis the terrorist groups, Modi government should wholeheartedly welcome it, since it will be in India’s vital interests, too.

The main difference this time is that Tillerson was explicit that the US-Indian partnership aims at containing China. He even spoke of creating a regional security architecture with the US, Japan, India, and Australia as its main pillars.

The rhetoric is confusing because Tillerson has also been active in preparing for the forthcoming state visit by President Donald Trump to China in about a fortnight from now, to make it a grand success. The Chinese Foreign Ministry website is still highlighting Tillerson’s recent meetings with Chinese President Xi Jinping and State Councilor Yang Jiechi in Beijing.

Read more: New rules of engagement between US & Pakistan

Who is the real Tillerson? He says nice things to both China and India. From China, he hopes to extract goodies for ‘America First’, and China’s help is vital for tackling North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un. On the other hand, he is inciting India against China and is creating misperceptions that the US regards India to be a counterweight to China.

Prima facie, there is a contradiction, but then, Tillerson’s real game plan is to encourage India to buy more weapons from the US. This is not very different from the successful strategy pursued by the US historically toward Saudi Arabia, which is today the biggest market for American arms manufacturers.

Ghani hopes to coordinate with Prime Minister Modi. What should be India’s approach to the emergent regional alignments? To my mind, Modi government should cooperate with Tillerson.

Even without American prodding, India is conscious of the need to modernize its armed forces. But India likes to make its decisions on free will, uncluttered by phobias. What Tillerson can do is to be honest about the sales pitch he will be making on behalf of the American vendors of weaponry. There is no need to embellish it with geopolitics.

An alliance system involves ‘interoperability’ of weapons, which in turns leads to Indian armed forces switching to American weaponry. This is the story of NATO. It leads to erosion of India’s strategic autonomy. (India must have the freedom to choose its wars to defend itself, and not to fight someone else’s.)

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We can see in front of our eyes what a grim tragic struggle it has become for Turkey to liberate itself from the clutches of the US’ embrace — even to exercise the option to buy S-400 missile defence system from Russia instead of living with the NATO system  (like Poland or Bulgaria or Spain would do), which is of course the American system.

The army chief Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa was present at the recent meeting of the recent Quadrilateral Consultative Group meeting on Afghanistan, which was held in Muscat. Pakistan took the initiative to revive the QCG.

Above all, India is dreaming about having its own defense industry — like China — and to design and make weapons to meet the needs of its armed forces — and, hopefully, export weapons — some day. And its long-term interests lie in choosing its partners optimally — be it Russia, France or Sweden — instead of being locked in an exclusive alliance with the US. The US doesn’t have a history of tolerating equal partnerships, either.

India ultimately lives in its region and China is an emerging superpower. As a friend of India, the US can allow India the space to handle its relations with China bilaterally. The high priority that Trump attaches to the US’ relations with China is self-evident. India didn’t throw tantrums that Trump included China as part of the itinerary for his first Asian tour next month. The US can reciprocate India’s goodwill.

Even without inserting the China angle, India is interested in buying weapons from the US and importing US shale oil, provided the terms of the transactions are agreeable. If American companies want to invest in India’s retail sector for oil products or in building pipelines, India will welcome such a move.

Read more: Why Delhi needs to be cautious in ties with Washington?

Tillerson is also expected to discuss India-Pakistan relations during his talks in Delhi. He is arriving in Delhi after holding talks in Islamabad and, possibly, he will be heading for Kabul in the final leg of his South Asian tour. Quite obviously, the leitmotif is the Afghan situation, which is a potential time bomb for US foreign policy.

The strategy aims at bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table. Therefore, the Trump administration has begun intensely engaging Pakistan. There is growing evidence that Pakistan is receptive to the US overture.

The fact of the matter is that the US strategy in Afghanistan is at a dead end without Pakistan’s cooperation. The strategy aims at bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table. Therefore, the Trump administration has begun intensely engaging Pakistan. There is growing evidence that Pakistan is receptive to the US overture.

The army chief Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa was present at the recent meeting of the recent Quadrilateral Consultative Group meeting on Afghanistan, which was held in Muscat. Pakistan took the initiative to revive the QCG. Curiously, the US and Pakistani intelligence agencies have also begun to collaborate in selective targeting of the militant groups through US drone attacks. It signals that substantive cooperation is on the cards.

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At the same time, the US realises that a regional approach is necessary for solving the Afghan problem. Suffice to say, the improvement of India-Pakistan relations becomes a pre-requisite of the situation. Of course, this is also linked to the trajectory of India’s strategic ties with Afghanistan.

Both Delhi and Kabul realise that Tillerson is coming with a brief to create underpinnings for the nascent  US-Pakistani politico-military cooperation regarding Afghanistan. These regional underpinnings will require that:

  • India and Afghanistan cap all joint activities to put pressure on Pakistan or try to destabilize that country;
  • Afghanistan maintains neutrality vis-à-vis India-Pakistan tensions;
  • India does not capitalize on Pakistan-Afghan tensions; and,
  • Peace and tranquillity prevails on Pakistan’s western and eastern borders.

The high priority that Trump attaches to the US’ relations with China is self-evident. India didn’t throw tantrums that Trump included China as part of the itinerary for his first Asian tour next month. The US can reciprocate India’s goodwill.

Clearly, the Trump administration hopes to persuade Delhi and Kabul that it is in their interests to go along with the US strategy to seek Pakistan’s cooperation. The hurried ‘working visit’ by the Afghan President Ashraf Ghani to Delhi tomorrow just hours before Tillerson’s arrival in the Indian capital underscores the angst in the Indian and Afghan minds regarding Tillerson’s mission to the regional capitals.

Read more: Tillerson asks India to improve ties with Pakistan: too little too…

Evidently, Ghani hopes to coordinate with Prime Minister Modi. What should be India’s approach to the emergent regional alignments? To my mind, Modi government should cooperate with Tillerson. For one thing, China is leveraging its influence on Pakistan to calibrate the latter’s policy toward militant groups operating in the region. China is a stakeholder in regional stability.

China’s ambassador in Pakistan has come under terrorist threat. Gone are the days when China would queer the India-Pakistan tensions in self-interest. While it is a bit early to say that the US and China could be moving in tandem behind the scenes to persuade Pakistan to change its Afghan policies, there are signs pointing in that direction. To be sure, Afghanistan will figure in Trump’s talks in China.

An alliance system involves ‘interoperability’ of weapons, which in turns leads to Indian armed forces switching to American weaponry. This is the story of NATO. It leads to erosion of India’s strategic autonomy.

Delhi needs to take a leap of faith. At the very least, Delhi should do nothing to weaken Tillerson’s hands. This means self-restraint in regard of India’s role in Afghanistan – in particular, a rollback in the Indian-Afghan cooperation at the intelligence level targeting Pakistan. Simultaneously, Delhi should begin to think about resuming contacts with Islamabad. The recent meeting between the EAM and the new Pakistani envoy can be the starting point.

Read more: Tillerson’s Islamabad visit: Still miles to travel

The gradual improvement in the situation in J&K allows space for both countries to step back, take a deep breath and to reset ties. If the Trump administration, with the help of China behind the scenes, brings about a genuine shift in the Pakistani policies vis-à-vis the terrorist groups, Modi government should wholeheartedly welcome it, since it will be in India’s vital interests, too.

M. K. Bhadrakumar has served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings as India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001). He writes extensively in Indian newspapers, Asia Times and the “Indian Punchline”. This piece was first published in Indian Punchline. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Global Village Space’s editorial policy.


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