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Ahead of first South Asia visit, Rex Tillerson aims for stronger defence ties with India amid China’s rise

Officials at the US State Department have noted that Wednesday's speech was intended to map out a strategy for US-India relations for the next century, in which the region's leading democracies could blunt China's growing influence.

By: Express Web Desk | New Delhi | Updated: October 19, 2017 3:20:32 pm
India US, Rex Tillerson, Pakistan, China, US China relations, South China Sea, Donald Trump, indian express news Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (Source: AP Photo)

A week ahead of his first visit to India, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Wednesday called for an expansion of the strategic ties between the two countries. Tillerson’s call for a “strong partnership” with India, coupled with a strong dismissal of China for challenging international norms. Officials at the US State Department have noted that Wednesday’s speech was intended to map out a strategy for US-India relations for the next century, in which the region’s leading democracies could blunt China’s growing influence. Here’s a summary of what Tillerson said and it’s likely impact on India, China and Pakistan.

Tillerson on India

US President Donald Trump’s inclination towards seeking a closer relationship with India than China was imitated by Tillerson on Wednesday when he said the world needed the two countries to have a strong partnership. “In this period of uncertainty and 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,” Tillerson said.

Adding that the two nations share goals of security, free navigation, free trade and fighting terrorism in the Indo-Pacific, Tillerson said India and US serve as “the eastern and western beacons” for maintaining the international rules-based order. He also said that unlike China, India benefited from the order while respecting rules and norms.

Tillerson said the US wants to improve India’s military capabilities while offering to sell it unarmed Guardian surveillance drones, aircraft carrier technologies and F-18 and F-16 fighter aircrafts. He also announced that India and US were leading regional efforts on counterterrorism. It must be noted that Trump’s constant calls to wipe out “radical Islamic extremism” are in sync with India’s efforts in protecting its own soil.

Tillerson on China

The US Secretary of State called out China for its “provocation actions” which challenge international law and norms. Pitting India and China against each other when it came to benefitting from the international rules-based order, Tillerson said China undermined the norms on some occasions, unlike India. To make his point, he alluded to China’s island building and expansive territorial claims in seas where Beijing has long-running disputes with Southeast Asian neighbours.

“China’s provocative actions in the South China Sea directly challenge the international law and norms that the United States and India both stand for,” Tillerson said while addressing the Washington think tank, Center for Strategic and International Studies. “The United States seeks constructive relations with China, but we will not shrink from China’s challenges to the rules-based order and where China subverts the sovereignty of neighboring countries and disadvantages the US and our friends,” he added.

In another remark likely to upset Beijing, Tillerson admitted there is room to invite others, including Australia, to join US-India-Japan security cooperation. The joint cooperation, while strengthening India’s maritime security, is something China has vehemently opposed, calling it attempt by democracies to gang up on it. Tillerson also accused China of economic activities and financing that saddles developing countries in the region with enormous debt.

The comments come in the backdrop of Chinese President Xi Jinping claiming it was time for China “to take center stage in the world and to make a greater contribution to humankind.”

China responded to the Secretary of State’s claims on Wednesday while adding that it hopes for a “healthy and sound” China-US relationship. China said it “contributes to and defends the rules-based world order” and seeks to advance international cooperation through the United Nations. “We will never seek hegemony or engage in expansion, never pursue development at the expense of others’ interests,” said the statement issued by the Chinese embassy in Washington.

Tillerson on Pakistan

Echoing India’s stand, Tillerson on Wednesday asked Pakistan “to take decisive action against terrorist groups based within their own borders that threaten its own people and the broader region.” The statement comes just a week after Pakistan, acting on US intelligence, secured the release of a US-Canadian family held by a Taliban-linked group for five years. Incidentally, on Wednesday, US Vice-President Mike Pence thanked Pakistani Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi for Pakistan’s help in the incident and asked for “a continued and sustained” Pakistan-US cooperation against militant groups.

Tillerson, who will be visiting Pakistan next week, is expected to press Islamabad, which denies aiding the Taliban, to take stronger steps against extremists and allied groups and intensify efforts to pressure them to agree to peace talks with Kabul. “We expect Pakistan to take decisive action against terrorist groups based there that threaten its own people and the broader region,” he said.

Tillerson on Afghanistan

Focusing on the need to stabilise Afghanistan, Tillerson said the efforts were necessary since they were integral to improving ties between India and Pakistan. “Once the objective of a stable, peaceful Afghanistan is achieved, a big threat is removed from Pakistan’s future stability as well, which then creates a better condition for India-Pakistan relationships,” he said. Washington intends to work closely with India and Pakistan to stabilise the war-torn nation and ease out the border tensions between the two neighbouring countries.

Tillerson said that while Pakistan was an important element of addressing the Afghan challenge, India is an important element to achieve the ultimate objective of a stable Afghanistan. “India’s important role is in providing development assistance to Afghanistan as they move forward to create better economic conditions that provide for the needs of a very diverse ethnic group of people in Afghanistan,” Tillerson said. “So, it is about a commitment, a message to the Taliban and other elements that we’re not going anywhere. And so we’ll be here as long as it takes for you to change your mind and decide you want to engage with the Afghan Government in a reconciliation process and develop a form of government that does suit the needs of the culture of Afghanistan,” the Secretary of State said.

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