It is unusual for the U.S. State Department to think of foreign relations beyond the next few years. But Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has declared that close ties with India would be an American priority for the next one hundred years.
From being ‘estranged’ democracies during the Cold War, India and the US today are in the words of Mr. Tillerson the “two bookends of stability - on either side of the globe - standing for greater security and prosperity for our citizens and people around the world.”
In the last two decades, New Delhi and Washington have become closer to each other and yet there was something missing in this relationship. Indians see themselves as inheritors of a 5000-year old civilization. They do not like short-term military alliances even as they are pragmatic in their international dealings. If India is to be America’s partner in balancing China, New Delhi wanted a deeper American commitment to helping India’s rise. Mr. Tillerson appears to be making that commitment.
So far, Washington’s other preoccupations in the region and beyond prevented American leaders from understanding what India sought from them. Mr. Tillerson’s speech on Wednesday, titled "Defining Our Relationship with India for the Next Century," offered India the assurance that the United States finally understands the unique potential of India.
Instead of referring simply to the seven decades old relationship, Mr. Tillerson actually referred to a “shared history” between the two countries based on the decades old linkages between the Indian and Pacific Oceans including the fact that the US national anthem was written by Francis Scott Key while aboard a ship built in India, the HMS Minden.
According to the Secretary of State the “driving force” of the relationship rested on the people-to-people ties. Four million India-Americans, 1.2 million American visitors to India annually and 166,000 Indian students studying in the United States are a reflection of this relationship between “our citizens, business leaders, and our scientists.”
600 American companies operate in India and over 100 Indian companies operate in the United States. There has also been a 500 percent increase in foreign direct investment by the US in India in the last two years. From $20 billion in bilateral trade in the year 2000 to over $115 billion in 2017 the India-US economic relationship has built a strong foundation though it still has a long way to go before it reaches the goal of $500 billion.
In early October, a shipment of American crude oil arrived in India providing access to energy from a dependable partner that believes in India’s potential and from whom India does not have to fear blowback.
From having almost no military relations during the Cold War to India becoming a Major Defense Partner of the United States, the two countries have come a long way. The two countries conduct the largest number of military exercises each year. Mr. Tillerson stated that the exercises should be interpreted as “a powerful message as to our commitment to protecting the global commons and defending our people.”
Mr. Tillerson also affirmed that the US saw India as a potential regional security provider and thus sought to help build its military capabilities by offering India critical defense equipment. He also spoke about the need to build security capacity through commercial and defense cooperation between the two militaries.
The Secretary of State explained why a democratic, pluralistic, tolerant, open, innovative India was the ideal partner for the United States. He spoke about the two countries having “open societies” that will help generate the ideas of the future. Referring to India as the birthplace of four of the world’s major religions Mr. Tillerson praised the strength of Indian society and democracy.
India’s founding fathers and especially first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru would have been thrilled to hear that in the words of the American Secretary of State the power of India’s democratic example was the reason why despite having the second largest Muslim population in the world, very few Indian Muslims had joined international terror groups.
Asserting US commitment to India's “sovereignty and security” Mr. Tillerson promised that the two countries shared security concerns: “Security issues that concern India are concerns of the United States.”
In his speech, the US Secretary of State also addressed the two countries whose policies India perceives as threats to its national interests: Pakistan and China.
Pakistan was mentioned as “an important” partner but the Pakistanis had to “take decisive action against terrorist groups based within their own borders that threaten their own people and the broader region.”
Pakistan is no longer the eastern most anchor of US foreign policy as it had been during the Cold War; India is now one of the two beacons (the other being the US) of the Indo-Pacific.
As for China, Mr. Tillerson described India as America’s ideal reliable partner in the defense of “a rules-based order to promote sovereign countries' unhindered access to the planet's shared spaces, be they on land, at sea, or in cyberspace,” which China seeks to undermine.
China and Pakistan will find little to cheer in recent articulations of U.S. policy. Two weeks ago Secretary of Defense General James Mattis had told Congress that the United States believed the One Belt One Road initiative of China passed through disputed territory, in effect agreeing with India’s objections to the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which passes through the territory of Kashmir.
In his Wednesday speech, Mr. Tillerson also argued for the need to build infrastructure investment programs and schemes that would counter China’s plans and help nations with limited alternatives. The Expanded Partnership for Quality infrastructure launched by Japan in 2016 which aims to provide $200 billion for promoting infrastructure in partner countries would be one such scheme that both India and the US could support.
India is definitely viewed by the United States as a global partner with whom it shares “growing strategic convergence.” Mr. Tillerson emphasized that the partnership rested on “a shared commitment to upholding the rule of law, freedom of navigation, universal values, and free trade.”
Thus, he acknowledged publicly that the India-U.S. entente was not a short-term tactical relationship. He also made it clear that to America, India is no longer just a regional power. The U.S. vision for the future recognizes the centrality of India in the global order emphasizing political and economic freedom.
The question now is, what concrete steps can Washington and Delhi take to realize that vision in practical terms.