The Tillerson Gambit

THE first visit to India of the US Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, marked another step in the US gambit to draw India fully into a strategic-military alliance in what is called the “Indo-Pacific” region.

Before his visit, Tillerson made a significant speech at a think-tank in Washington entitled, “Defining Our Relationship with India for the Next Century”.  The speech set out the framework for the US-India strategic alliance: “The United States and India are increasingly global partners with growing strategic convergence”.  Tillerson made it clear that the United States wishes to harness India in its efforts to contain China in the Asia-Pacific region. He accused China of “undermining the international rules-based order” even while praising India’s role. Tillerson underlined the fact that the foundation of the strategic alliance is the military relationship.  He approvingly quoted what the US defense secretary had stated: “The world’s two greatest democracies should have the two greatest militaries” and then went on to make a strong pitch for India acquiring a whole range of weaponry from the United States such as the Guardian UAVs, aircraft carrier technologies, F 16-F18 fighters and so on.   

He cited the recent Malabar exercise in which the US, India and Japan participated as the emergence of new security alliance for the Indo-Pacific region. The address made it explicit that India should play a key role along Japan in the US strategy against China. 

Tillerson’s speech carried forward the stand of the previous US administrations  in forging a deep strategic alliance with India. Tillerson arrived in New Delhi after visiting Islamabad. The Trump administration has acknowledged the important role Pakistan has to play, in resolving the conflict in Afghanistan. Tillerson made the rhetorical assurances that the US is putting pressure on the Pakistani establishment to act against the terrorist groups operating from the country. This was done, as usual, to allay India’s concerns, but the reality is that the Trump administration cannot dispense with the Afpak strategy.

Tillerson sought to get India on board for its sanctions and hostile maneouvres against Iran.  The Trump administration is determined to scuttle the nuclear agreement arrived at with Iran by the Obama administration. Going along with the US sanctions on Iran would be harmful to India’s vital interests in the energy and economic spheres, but given past experience, the Modi government may give in to US pressure.

Having already signed the joint vision statement with President Obama for a joint strategy in the Indian Ocean and Asia-Pacific region, the Modi government is proceeding to take further steps to cement ties.  The “two-by-two” ministerial dialogue is being initiated involving the foreign and defense ministers of both countries. This is replacing the earlier dialogue between the foreign and commerce ministers, thus, highlighting the military strategic nature of the relationship. The Japanese foreign minister has already called for the quadrilateral alliance of India, Japan, Australia and the USA.  This is a step favoured by the US.

India is poised to buy more weaponry from the US worth billions of dollars.  Both Gen. Mattis, the defense secretary who came to India in September and Tillerson have urged India to buy the F 16-F 18 fighter planes.  This is accompanied by the pressure to sign other “foundational” military agreements like the CISMOA. 

Though Trump’s foreign policy stances are unpredictable and volatile, the Tillerson visit confirms that the long term strategy with regard to India is not witnessing any change.  

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