Tillerson's India visit will cement ties, deepen regional cooperation

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's visit to India is expected to further cement ties between the two countries, with discussions expected to revolve around closer cooperation amid the growing regional influence of China and the worsening security situation in Afghanistan.

Mr Tillerson, who will be making his maiden visit to India, is scheduled to hold talks with External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj and meet Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Wednesday.

The top US diplomat is on a five-nation tour that includes Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. The visit comes after he announced last week that the United States wanted to dramatically deepen ties with India.

India said it was looking forward to Mr Tillerson's visit, adding that it shared his "optimism" about the future of the India-US relationship.

Ties have grown in recent years, particularly in security and defence, amid mutual concerns about the rise of China. India has a festering border issue with China and recently had a lengthy border stand-off near a trilateral junction between the India, Bhutan and China borders. Also, the US has been alarmed by China's assertiveness in the South China Sea territorial disputes.

There has been greater military engagement between India and the US in the last decade, with Washington wanting New Delhi to buy more arms from US suppliers and align more closely with the US in Asia.

Experts said Mr Tillerson's visit was important and kept up the momentum of high-level visits between the two countries. It comes a month after the visit of US Defence Secretary James Mattis, who discussed ways to deepen maritime cooperation in the Indo-Pacific.

Professor Chintamani Mahapatra from Jawaharlal Nehru University said: "India has been identified as one of the important anchors of peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific. This gives an opportunity for the two sides to exchange notes on Indo-Pacific developments ahead of Mr Donald Trump's visit."

Both sides are also likely to discuss Afghanistan, where the US has been pushing India to do more.

But Pakistan remains a point of contention. Many in New Delhi are not thrilled that Mr Tillerson is also visiting Pakistan. While the US sees Pakistan as a necessary ally in Afghanistan, India wants the global community, particularly the US, to push Pakistan on dismantling the terror infrastructure that has targeted India. India has continued to accuse elements in Pakistan of encouraging terror groups.

"The visit to Pakistan is going to be touchy for India. And there will be commentary on that. But India needs to look at larger strategic issues," said Dr Rajeswari Rajagopalan, a senior fellow at the Observer Research Foundation.

After all, the US and India have a lot in agreement on China, the balance of power in Asia, and "the pivotal role for India in the US strategy against China", she added.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 23, 2017, with the headline 'Tillerson's India visit will cement ties, deepen regional cooperation'. Print Edition | Subscribe