The US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has promised a lot in terms of co-operation from India but hasn’t specified what the US will contribute.
Eight months into his tenure, Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson landed in India this week in his first visit as secretary to the world’s largest democracy. By all Indian media accounts, his meeting with his counterpart, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, went well. He also met with India’s national security advisor, Ajit Doval, and paid a call on the prime minister.
Tillerson affirmed the United States’ commitment to stand with India against terrorism, support India’s military modernization by providing the “best technologies,” and most importantly, “support India’s emergence as a leading power.” But what will he deliver?
Last week Tillerson charted out for the public—in his first substantive foreign policy address as secretary of state—where India fits in the Trump administration’s global strategy. Surprisingly, the speech unfurled arguably the most coherent strategic thinking to emerge to date from the Trump administration.
Tillerson said that India and the United States must together uphold a “free and open Indo-Pacific” region committed to democracy, rule of law, freedom of navigation, and against “predatory economics.”
Achieving this ambitious vision will depend on whether the Trump administration has the patience needed for cooperation with India’s lumbering policy machinery, whether it will fully resource the policies emerging from this strategy, and whether it will help India get the seat it deserves in global institutions.
New Delhi and Washington as democratic partners shoring up the “free and open Indo-Pacific” is a terrific concept—so terrific that more or less similar impulses framed the Barack Obama and George W. Bush administration’s approaches to India. What’s changed in recent years, however, has been China’s increasingly assertive claims to territory across the region, both maritime and land, and its bid to refashion itself as a lender of first resort to small countries that can ill afford massive market-rate infrastructure loan repayments.
Both tactics are undermining the rules-based international order, to use a favored Obama administration term, developed over decades through institutions the United States has helped create such as the World Bank and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
India has been willing to stand up to China, affirming its support for freedom of navigation—speaking up, for example, for close partner Vietnam in its maritime dispute with China. From June through late August, Indian troops faced down Chinese counterparts in a disputed area in Bhutan, coming to the aid of its neighbor when China attempted to extend a road in territory still subject to border negotiations.
India is significantly expanding its own military, already the world’s fifth largest, in response to an increased Chinese presence across the Indian Ocean, and New Delhi has declared its ambition for primacy in the Indian Ocean. In addition, India was among the only major countries to boycott the May rollout of China’s Belt and Road Initiative—formerly known as One Belt One Road—in part because it runs through Pakistan-controlled territory that New Delhi claims.
U.S.-India defense and strategic cooperation has expanded greatly over the past fifteen years, and U.S. officials see India as a net provider of regional security. A steady uptick of joint exercises has increased comfort between the two militaries, and a series of Indian procurements from U.S. suppliers has augmented Indian capabilities.
Yet frustration remains on both sides about the pace of progress on advanced defense cooperation, and despite New Delhi’s willingness to partner with Washington on exercises, PACOM Commander Admiral Harry Harris’s public call for India and the United States to conduct joint maritime patrols met with a polite decline. Part of working with India, from the American perspective, often means tempering enthusiasm and adjusting to the pace at which Indian officials are ready to move—without giving up on the effort.
Tillerson has been outspoken recently about concerns with China’s rapidly expanding Belt and Road Initiative, particularly on the debt burdens that have emerged from some of the earliest projects undertaken. In the case of Sri Lanka, China’s market-rate financing to build vanity projects in the previous president’s hometown has gouged out debt so deep Colombo has traded equity in a port just to pay China back. India has been the most vocal country in the world questioning China’s Belt and Road Initiative for this, among other reasons.
But while Tillerson suggested that India and the United States could together offer alternatives to help enhance regional connectivity, he did not explain what resources the United States would bring to the table. His own budget proposals and management reforms are about cutting resources, not finding ways to match, or at minimum provide a substitute for, the larger-than-the-Marshall-Plan funding China is doling out.
Other Trump administration officials do not appear connected to this larger strategy at all: Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, during the World Bank / International Monetary Fund meetings recently, did not endorse an increase in the World Bank’s capital base, and called for the Bank to become financially self-sustaining. There’s not a clear path to a credible alternative to “predatory economics” while Washington downsizes the State Department, cuts assistance budgets and declines to increase those of international financial institutions.
Finally, Tillerson has praised India’s “responsible” rise on the world stage, which he has contrasted with China’s. But he has not provided further indication of how the United States would help boost New Delhi’s support for the liberal international order.
This is where Washington can really help, for India deserves a seat in more of the agenda-setting global institutions. India, unlike China, does not have a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. Nor is it a member of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Forum, nor the exclusive agenda-setting Group of Seven economies—although the Indian economy is now larger than those of Canada and Brazil.
New Delhi has long sought greater weight within the World Bank and the IMF as well. Will the United States press these institutions for changes to accommodate India’s growing heft and help it gain a greater voice? Tillerson hasn’t said.
The Trump administration will need not only to answer these questions, but back its statements with real policies and real resources to deliver what should be an important next step in the American pivot to India. Only if they do so will this promising pivot amount to more than just rhetoric.
Alyssa Ayres is senior fellow for India, Pakistan, and South Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations, and the author of Our Time Has Come: How India is Making Its Place in the World, forthcoming in January from Oxford University Press.