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US vision sounds good for India

US vision sounds good for India

If the script before the New Delhi visit of the US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is any indication, Trump administration's India vision is looking to 'complement' India's Act East policy. Not only it was hard on China and Pak-sponsored terrorism, it also appears considering India as a sine qua non in the US strategy for the Indo-Pacific. In his momentous speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, titled 'Defining Our Relationship with India for the Next Century', Tillerson cleared his motive as he gave powerful optics that projected India as a 'pivotal state' in the US' future regional strategies. The US apparently aims to mount pressure on Pakistan, to cooperate in forging a negotiated settlement with the insurgent Taliban in Afghanistan and remote Pakistan territories. The Trump administration also appears to encourage India to step up in Afghanistan.

The US Secretary also outlined an augmentation of cooperation with India in counter-terrorism and maritime security, and held out a profound US pledge that "the world's two greatest democracies should have the world's two greatest militaries." Washington has also issued a signal that US would be leaning on India to offset China's influence and proposed a new regional security architecture with the US, Japan, India and Australia as its main pillars. The US claims that it intends to use defense ties with India to challenge China's rising military profile and regional influence, while also boosting its arms exports. Surprisingly, he clearly indicated the desire to have a relationship with India that would be focused on upholding the liberal international order in a way that he clearly said China is not. He criticised China for its, quote, 'predatory economics in the region', but he didn't offer details about what the Trump administration might do to promote transparency and development. The Trump administration appears to be figuring out how to realise this idea of partnering with India to uphold the liberal international order at a time when the kind of big strategic signals that have been coming out of the White House have been about retreat. But, it would be interesting to see the modus operandi of Washington to keep India involved in helping to rebuild Afghanistan while reassuring Pakistan that this is in its interests, too. But, before trying to manage that India-Pakistan rivalry, though, Tillerson has some other big disputes on his hands. He must be eying to heal a deep rift between Saudi Arabia and Qatar and get them focused on fighting terrorism. On the other hand, India too is keeping a constant watch on the new type of relationship between the US and China. This is a game India, too, can clearly play, as New Delhi balances its own defense ties. Not to forget, when US Secretary arrives India, its armed forces would be in the middle of a 10-day landmark military exercise with Russia, unprecedented for its involvement of all three services – army, navy and air force.

Meanwhile, the US is also having tough time to get the sale order of its Predator Guardian UAVs and F-18 and F-16 fighter jets to India as Modi government is cautiously making permutations and combinations – to maintain its weight on international balance of powers. Notably, Tillerson spoke effusively about the sale of hi-tech weapons, but never once mentioned co-production, as India does for certain weapons with Russia, leave alone any nod to 'Make in India.' Tillerson had also singled out 'energy cooperation' in his speech. The US shale industry is targeting India's rapidly growing market and American companies are keen to enter the lucrative downstream retail sector as well as secure contracts to construct pipeline grids connecting India's far-flung regions. On the other hand, India must be watchful of entrapment in the US maneuvering vis-à-vis China and Pakistan. One lesson that New Delhi has learnt from the recent Doklam stand-off with China is that there is no substitute to bilateral diplomatic and political tracks to navigate complex issues and make relationships stable and predictable. Not only that, India needs to open its eyes on the nuances in the US approach to Pakistan.

Not to forget that the US-Pakistan relationship has become kinetic of late due to the Pakistani military's rescue of a Canadian-American couple held hostage for five years in the lawless Pakistan-Afghan border region. However, it is clear that the US under President Donald Trump is willing to share technologies, explore 'Make in India' options and provide high-end equipment in a way that's not been done before. But, it still needs to be tested on ground, given tough American end-user requirements. But, despite this high-flown American orotundity about a bolstered strategic alliance with India, 'America First' is the ultimate agenda of Trump's foreign policy.

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