IAPS Dialogue: The online magazine of the Institute of Asia & Pacific Studies

Tillerson visit: Roiling of Indo-Pacific waters?

Written by C Uday Bhaskar.

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, on the eve of his first visit to India in his present official capacity, outlined what may be termed as the Trump policy for Asia  in a major speech   (October 18) at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a major US think-tank in Washington DC.

While it was innocuously titled: “On Defining Our Relationship with India for the Next  Century”, the sub-text apropos China was unambiguous. The fact that the Tillerson speech  overlapped with  the address of  Chinese President Xi Jinping at the inaugural of the 19th Chinese Party Congress in Beijing   may not  quite be a coincidence and the policy jostling  between the USA and China over a leadership role in Asia is palpable.

The Indo-Pacific – a formulation not to the liking of China –  was alluded to many times in the Tillerson speech and the prevailing  trade and economic  inter-dependency that links the three nations (USA, China and India ) together cannot be ignored or jeopardized hastily.

The implications for India are complex, opaque and long-term  and hence cannot be reduced to a simplistic binary choice. US-India relations have moved from three decades of being ‘estranged’ over the contentious nuclear issue to one of tentative engagement beginning July 2005.

The architects of this radical rapprochement were then US President George Bush and his Indian counterpart Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.  The final legislative closure was arrived at in late 2008,  just before the Obama tenure  began in 2009.

In the last eight years the bilateral  relationship has made considerable progress in certain sectors – such as government-to-government (G2G) military inventory sales. The much hyped civilian nuclear commerce has remained stalled due to regulatory and insurance related mismatch but technology transfer and energy cooperation are high on the priority list.

While there was some anxiety in Delhi  earlier this year that President Donald  Trump  would  not endorse and support what was deemed an Obama initiative, it is now evident that the post 2008 orientation of the bilateral  remains undisturbed.

Furthermore, the  Tillerson speech  was expansive and generous  in  looking ahead when he asserted that  the profound transformation that is  taking place in the bilateral is “one that will have far-reaching implications for the next 100 years: the United States and India are increasingly global partners with growing strategic convergence.”

The intangible but significant correspondence for the two nations is one based on the normative principle of  democracy and, to my mind, the operative part of the Tillerson address is contained in this section:  “Indians and Americans don’t just share an affinity for democracy.  We share a vision of the future.  The emerging Delhi-Washington strategic partnership stands upon a shared commitment upholding the rule of law, freedom of navigation, universal values, and free trade.  Our nations are two bookends of stability – on either side of the globe – standing for greater security and prosperity for our citizens and people around the world.”

The signal to Beijing is unambiguous and the reference to rule of law and freedom of navigation  extrapolates directly to the South China Sea and the manner in which China has rejected the international tribunal award in the matter.

In a visible departure from accepted protocol, China has been referred to more than once by Secretary Tillerson in what was billed as a blueprint for the US-India relationship.  Dwelling on the international order and the emergence of the Asian powers, Tillerson  observed: “China, while rising alongside India, has done so less responsibly, at times undermining the international, rules-based order even as countries like India operate within a framework that protects other nations’ sovereignty.”

The comparison is sure to elicit an irate response from Beijing and the visit of the US Secretary of State to India will be monitored very carefully by the mandarins of the Middle Kingdom.

The Indo-Pacific – a formulation not to the liking of China –  was alluded to many times in the Tillerson speech and the prevailing  trade and economic  inter-dependency that links the three nations (USA, China and India ) together cannot be ignored or jeopardized hastily.

The Xi Jinping   address of October 18 had projected the lofty  vision of  realizing the Chinese Dream by 2049 unilaterally, if required, and  consequently the waters of the Indo-Pacific will be roiled in varying manner. New Delhi will have to navigate these choppy waters in an astute manner wherein the power of principle and the primacy of power are appropriately harmonized.

C Uday Bhaskar is a retired Commodore in the Indian Navy and currently serves at the Director, Society for Policy Studies (SPS), New Delhi. He tweets at @theUdayB. This article was first published on the South Asia Monitor and has been reposted with the permission of the author.Image credit: by U.S. State Department/Flickr.