India a key strategic partner in Indo-Pacific, says Rex Tillerson in first major foreign policy speech

Rex Tillerson answers questions at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON - Focusing on India in his first major foreign policy speech, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson pledged a deeper and broader security and economic relationship between the US and the largest democracy in the world - something which has broad bipartisan support in Washington DC, and for the first time clarifies US policy in south Asia, analysts said.

Speaking at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) days before his first official visit to New Delhi next week, Mr Tillerson said: "The United States and India are increasingly global partners with growing strategic convergence.

"The emerging Delhi-Washington strategic partnership stands upon a shared commitment (of) upholding the rule of law, freedom of navigation, universal values and free trade.

"Security issues that concern India, concern the United States," he emphasised.

The US had proposed Guardian Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, aircraft carrier technologies, a future vertical-lift programme, and F-18 and F-16 fighter aircraft as "potential game changers for our commercial and defence cooperation," he added.

Repeatedly emphasising a shared role in an open Indo-Pacific region, he said: "We need to collaborate with India to ensure that the Indo-Pacific is increasingly a place of peace, stability, and growing prosperity - so that it does not become a region of disorder, conflict and predatory economics."

He also took a swipe at China, saying while China had been rising, "less responsibly, at times undermining the international, rules-based order - even as countries like India operate within a framework that protects other nations' sovereignty."

"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," he added.

"The United States seeks constructive relations with China. But we won't shrink from China's challenges to the rules-based order, or where China subverts the sovereignty of neighboiring countries, and disadvantages the US and our friends."

Washington-based Nisha Biswal, a former Assistant Secretary of State recently announced as the next President of the US India Business Council, told The Straits Times the Secretary had, "in a very bold way, put firmly front and centre for both countries what's at stake here, and why it is important to work through issues that sometimes bedevil us because we have very robust democracies."

Mr Tillerson had not minced words in amplifying the importance of major pillars of US-India cooperation, especially counterterrorism and shared concerns about China, Michael Kugelman, senior associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson Centre, wrote in an email.

"These are the issues that bring the two countries together," he wrote.

President Trump and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi had an apparently warm meeting at the White House in late June. But with the administration engaged in a long review of south Asian policy, there had been no clear contextualisation of the US-India relationship until Wednesday's speech, analysts said.

In the interim, China had flexed its muscles, one analyst noted, asking not to be named -and citing the two-month-long standoff between Indian and Chinese troops this summer in the remote Doklam region of the Himalayas.

"There has been some uncertainty across Asia over what the US vision was and what engagement would look like," the analyst said.

"The speech lays some markers on how the US sees geopolitical and economic competition in the region."

"In that sense, the Secretary's speech will be well received in India, and also seen with a lot of interest across Asia as a vision for the US and what's at stake in the region."

Wrote Mr Kugelman: "If there is one major takeaway from Tillerson's speech, it's that the US-India relationship is going places, and fast."

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