With External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj sitting by his side, visiting US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Wednesday took on Pakistan, saying there are “too many terror outfits” which find a “safe place in Pakistan”. Stating that Washington has conveyed “certain expectations” to Islamabad, he said “terror safe havens will not be tolerated”.
After the bilateral talks that lasted for over an-hour-and-a-half, Swaraj said US President Donald Trump’s new South Asia strategy would be successful only if Pakistan takes effective action against terrorist groups, without any discrimination.
However, Tillerson also made it clear that Washington wants to work with Islamabad in a “positive way” — he met Pakistan’s leadership on Tuesday — and set up a “cooperation mechanism” on sharing information and action taken against groups. He also said the US would stand “shoulder-to-shoulder with India in fighting terrorism”.
In a significant development, India and the US decided to hold the “inaugural meeting of the new bilateral mechanism on domestic and international terrorist designations in India in December”.
“This is one of the major takeaways, especially since Jaish-e-Mohammad chief Masood Azhar’s case is still on technical hold at the UN Security Council,” a South Block source told The Indian Express.
Tillerson’s visit was marked by a sense of warmth from the Indian side, which was markedly different from his visit to Islamabad, where the relationship was seen as somewhat frosty.
During the joint press interaction, Swaraj said that after Tillerson’s hectic tour of six countries in five days, “it is a matter of great delight that in the end, he has reached a country which is a very close friend, and it is said that visiting a friendly country melts all the fatigue away. I think that Secretary Tillerson will also be feeling like this and he would not be tired now. Instead, he will return from here with new energy.”
At the end of the interaction, Tillerson got up and pulled out the chair for Swaraj. This was their second meeting in a month — they met on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York last month.
The two leaders also agreed to convene the 2+2 dialogue mechanism, between the foreign and defence ministers of both countries, “early next year”. This will replace the Barack Obama administration’s Strategic and Commercial Dialogue, which was attended by foreign and commerce ministers from both sides.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, during his meeting with Tillerson later in the day, noted the commonality in the objectives of eradicating terrorism, terrorist infrastructure, safe havens and support, while bringing peace and stability to Afghanistan — in the context of President Trump’s new South Asia policy.
A PMO statement said that in this regard, Tillerson exchanged views on his “recent travels in the region” — a reference to Pakistan — with the Prime Minister, and they discussed stepping up effective cooperation to combat terrorism in all its forms and promoting regional stability and security.
At the joint press interaction, Swaraj said: “We agreed that Pakistan should take immediate steps to dismantle safe havens which have been established there for terrorist groups. We believe that effective action by Pakistan against all terrorist groups without distinction is critical to the success of the new strategy of President Trump… Secretary Tillerson and I agreed that we will have to work closely to ensure that no country provides safe havens for terrorists; and those countries which provide support to terrorists or use terrorism are held accountable.”
She said they shared grave concern at the recent escalation of terrorist violence in Afghanistan. “These attacks demonstrate that safe havens and support systems continue to be available to terrorists,” she said, in a reference to Pakistan.
Echoing her views, Tillerson said, “We had a frank exchange on concerns. There are too many terror organisations which find a safe place in Pakistan. We extended to Pakistan certain expectations that we had. We are attempting to put in place a cooperation mechanism, not just on information sharing but also action — to deny them ability to launch attacks against other countries… We are also concerned about stability of Pakistan government as well, as they have enlarged their capacity within the country and threaten to destabilise. We want to work with Pakistan in a positive way as we think that this is in their interest in the long-term.”
With an assertive China on the rise, Tillerson also raised the issue of Indo-Pacific. “Our relationship’s core foundation is our common values, which is underlined by commitment to individual freedom and rule of law… US supports India’s emergence as a leading power and will support India’s capability to provide security in region,” he said. This was again a continuation of his speech in Washington DC last week.
Swaraj reiterated India’s position on freedom of navigation, air flight, commerce in Indo-Pacific region, which was a topic of the India-US talks.
The two leaders also discussed North Korea, as the US administration has been pushing its allies and partners to cut off diplomatic and trade ties with Pyongyang.
Swaraj said that trade between India and North Korea is “minimal”, and New Delhi has a “small embassy”. She argued that New Delhi’s mission in North Korea can serve as a channel of communication for the US. While it is not known whether Washington will be convinced by her reasoning, this means that Delhi is sticking to its stand of maintaining diplomatic ties with North Korea despite pressure. Trump has been extremely confrontational with North Korea, and has even undermined Tillerson in his diplomatic efforts.
Tillerson and Swaraj also discussed Iran, and, when asked about India’s Chabahar port development, Tillerson took a nuanced view — much to New Delhi’s surprise. “It is not our objective to harm the Iranian people. Nor is it our objective to interfere with legitimate business activities which are going on with other businesses, whether they be from Europe, India or agreements that are in place that promote economic development to the benefit of our friends and allies as well,” he said.
“We think that there is no contradiction within that policy and we are calling on some of these counter parties to join us in imposing sanctions on Iran’s activities, and in particular, the activities of the Iran Revolutionary Guards Corps and their subsidiaries — to punish them for the destabilising activities that we see Iran carrying out in this region,” he said.
The H1B visa issue, which has the potential to impact a large number of Indian IT professionals in the US, also came up during the meeting. Swaraj had raised the issue with Tillerson in their meeting last month, and so had Finance Minister Arun Jaitley in his meetings with the US administration in recent weeks.
“Secretary Tillerson has very correctly pointed out that ‘no two countries encourage innovation better than the US and India’. In this regard, we have also discussed the very significant contribution to the US economy of Indian skilled professionals who travel and work under H1-B and L-1 visa programmes,” she said.
Sources told The Indian Express that the meeting with NSA Ajit Doval was also “very fruitful”, as both sides exchanged notes on the security situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan.