Rex Tillerson in India: Closer strategic ties with US an advantage and a need; time we shed the baggage of distrust

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's visit to India comes in a context of great bilateral flux. There is in India a palpable sense of excitement over scratching at the fringes of a potentially game-changing relationship, and a odd sense of unease that too much is happening much too soon.

The Donald Trump administration is rapidly revising the US' stance in Asia and contrary to common wisdom, is trying to scale up its influence and remain a major player in the Indo-Pacific region to ensure its "freedom and openness" from Chinese aggression. It has decided that the best way to do so would be to develop a quadrilateral of like-minded democracies, and India forms a vital cog in that plan.

In a major revision of its India policy, the US also seems open to the idea of letting India take a leadership role in Indo-Pacific and nudging it towards acting as the security guarantor. It seeks to aid India's capacity-building and is promising logistical support. This is a good deal.

Tillerson was quite clear about this policy shift in his 18 October speech defining the modalities of US-India relationship for the next 100 years.

"In keeping with India’s status as a Major Defense Partner – a status overwhelmingly endorsed last year by the U.S. Congress – and our mutual interest in expanding maritime cooperation, the Trump administration has offered a menu of defence options for India’s consideration, including the Guardian UAV. We value the role India can play in global security and stability and are prepared to ensure they have even greater capabilities," he had said during the CSIS address.

Rex Tillerson in India: Closer strategic ties with US an advantage and a need; time we shed the baggage of distrust

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson with Sushma Swaraj. Image courtesy: Twitter/@RaveeshKumar

Of course, the US isn’t doing it just because it wants to help India. A stronger and more capable India serves the US' purpose. India is also central to Trump's Afghanistan policy. Washington is aware that at this moment in history, no other country has more convergence of interests with the US than India. Both nations share the same set of values, represent almost the same political and belief systems and operational structures. In terrorism and the rise of a superpower that seeks to upend the international order, both nations (in still varying degrees) face the same set of threats as well.

China's assertive rise goes much beyond the disruption of global order and dilution of US primacy. China isn't seeking to just rise as a military and economic superpower and replace the US. It is also trying to completely overhaul the value and political system established by western liberal democracies which the US seeks to protect and propagate. In this, China presents an existential threat to the US. And sooner than later India, which has modeled itself on the western liberal democracies and has imbibed many of those values, will face the same threat in all its intensity with an added threat of sovereignty concerns.

Xi Jinping's fearsome concentration of power in a one-party autocratic system will further increase the pace of China's capacity-building. There are no checks and balances to his power (at least internally) and nothing stops Xi from trying to realize his vision of making China the global superpower by 2050. While this revanchist vision may or may not have populist backing, that question is moot. What this will do is show other countries an alternative model of governance, as opposed to the democratic model where the rise of a nation is moored in (or should be) equality and consensus.

This is the Chinese threat in all its totality, and to its credit, the Trump administration seems to be aware of it. As a US state department official put it during a recent media interaction just ahead of Tillerson's New Delhi trip, a deepening of India-US "economic, cultural, diplomatic, and security ties" will not only bring mutual profits but also benefit the entire Indo-Pacific region. This was the cornerstone of Tillerson's CSIS speech where he declared that: "In this period of uncertainty and somewhat angst, India needs a reliable partner on the world stage. I want to make clear: with our shared values and vision for global stability, peace, and prosperity, the United States is that partner."

In the background briefing to the media in US, the state department official clarified that though Tillerson's speech was taken as primarily for Indian consumption, it was meant for a wide array of audiences.

"China’s obviously an audience of the speech. But this is a speech, obviously, which we hope all countries in the Indo-Pacific region will take to heart, that the Secretary has placed a priority – the Secretary and the President. There have been at least two or three White House references to a free and open Indo-Pacific. This is a priority for the President and the Secretary of State. Because India is one of the anchors of an Indo-Pacific strategy, we wanted to devote a lot of time to this country. We’re also backing it up by going to the region."

What should be India's response when the US is extending an arm of friendship and assistance?

Policy independence has been India's calling card in foreign policy long before its emergence as a nation-state. From the days of Kautilya's Arthashastra during the Mauryan Empire and his theory of "concentric circles" to Jawaharlal Nehru's "non-alignment" right down to Narendra Modi's diversifying policy of "strategic autonomy", the freedom to choose and not be restricted within the parameters of formal alliances has remained the governing principle of India's foreign policy.

This strategy pretty much incorporates all the strands of imperialism, idealism, realism and isolationism that Hudson Institute scholar Aparna Pande mentions in her book 'The Evolution of India's Foreign Policy'. While the strategy has served India well through the days of Cold War, allowed us to remain diplomatically engaged with a wide array of nations and hedge against global uncertainties, a new reality is upon us and it is time Indian strategic thinkers and policymakers put this policy under greater scrutiny. In contrast, India's lawmakers seem more amenable to evolution.

The underlying motive behind any foreign policy is self-interest. India has historically rejected treaty-based alliances because these are perceived to be restrictive in balance. But when the old world order — where such a policy may have worked well — changes/ is about to change/ faces a looming threat, India's policy response ought to change as well.

We need to shed our baggage of distrust when it comes to a closer strategic embrace of the US and see it for what it is — a need and an advantage. India doesn't necessarily need to bury its 'strategic autonomy', we could act on a closer defence strategy and upgrade the military logistics pact. We could also do with expanding the Malabar exercise footprint by bringing in Australia.

Xi's Belt and Road Initiative just secured Communist Party sanction by virtue of it being written into the charter. This immediately escalates India's concerns. New Delhi, along with Japan and Washington, could scale up joint projects in Indo-Pacific. It isn't enough to talk about a 'just and responsible order' and denounce the BRI project as violative of sovereignty and economic principles. Smaller countries can ill afford to keep China's grand connectivity project away, much less even want to. India (in conjunction with the US and Japan) must provide an alternative model.

But in order to even begin taking steps in that direction, we need to create the right environment. When it comes to the US, strategists in India see Banquo's ghost at the supper table. This must change.

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Updated Date: Oct 26, 2017 18:36:37 IST

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