Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has given a rare, major foreign policy speech outlining the Trump administration’s south Asia policy, reaching out to India to counter China in the Indo-Pacific region.
Speaking to a packed auditorium at the Center for Strategic and International Studies research center in Washington, D.C., Tillerson looked forward to the next 100 years of close U.S.-India ties.
“President Trump and [Indian] Prime Minister Modi are committed - more than any of our leaders before them - to building an ambitious partnership that benefits not only our two great democracies, but other sovereign nations working toward greater peace and stability.”
Bookends of stability
Tillerson said the U.S. and India are “bookends of stability” on either side of the globe, noting the nations share a commitment to upholding the rule of law, freedom of navigation, universal values and free trade. Tillerson said the Trump administration is determined to “dramatically deepen” ways for the United States and India to work together, and he announced that he will be visiting New Delhi next week.
Asia expert Michael Kugelman said that while Tillerson’s focus on defense and security cooperation was predictable, he "was also struck how he spoke in great detail, and at the very beginning of the speech, about economic partnership. Economic cooperation has lagged behind defense cooperation, and so we can read this as an effort to expand the relationship beyond its main comfort level of defense and security.”
Tillerson took a more strident tone on China.
“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. The United States seeks constructive relations with China," said Tillerson. "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 U.S. and our friends.”
The secretary of state said India and China both have risen over the past decades to become global powers. He contrasted their paths, though, saying China "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 Chinese embassy responded later Wednesday to Tillerson’s comments, saying in a statement to VOA: “China contributes to and defends the rules-based world order and seeks to enhance international cooperation with the United Nations at the center.
“We are fully committed to forging a fair and just world order together with the rest of the world, providing the greatest good for the greatest number of people through win-win cooperation. For example, we put forward the Belt and Road Initiative which aims to boost common development and has earned the support and participation of many countries across the globe,” the statement said.
Kugelman said U.S. policy toward India has been consistent for the last 15 years, but he noted that what makes the policy outlined by Tillerson a bit different is its explicit focus on China.
“The Obama administration agreed that shared concern about China was a major strategic issue that brings the U.S. and India together. And yet, the Obama administration chose to be less overt in calling out China and in highlighting it as a point of convergence for U.S.-India ties," said Kugelman. "The Obama White House struggled in its relations with Beijing, but at the same time it didn’t want to alienate the Chinese. With the Trump administration, there is a tendency to take less of a 'kid gloves' [cautious] approach."
A senior State Department spokesman told reporters later Wednesday that Tillerson’s speech was the culmination of several months of deliberation between the State Department, the White House and the National Security Council. The spokesman confirmed U.S. eagerness to strengthen ties with India, saying, “India is looking for a partner - America is that partner.”
Tillerson said India is a partner for peace in Afghanistan, and he welcomed India’s assistance to that war-torn country. He called on Pakistan to take decisive action against terrorist groups based within their own borders there that threaten its own people and the broader region. Asked about concerns Pakistan might have about a U.S. shift toward India, a senior State Department spokesman said a stronger U.S. relationship with India does not come at the expense of Pakistan, and vice versa.