The Cable

Tillerson Knocks China, Courts India Ahead of South Asia Trip

Tough words for “One Belt, One Road” and praise for a deepening defense partnership.

Tillerson and his Indian counterpart, Subrahmanyan Jaishankar, meet in Washington, D.C. in March 2017 (Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)
Tillerson and his Indian counterpart, Subrahmanyan Jaishankar, meet in Washington, D.C. in March 2017 (Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)

Just ahead of his first official trip to India, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson offered a “love letter” to New Delhi while taking direct aim at China’s ambitious plans to further deepen its influence throughout Asia.

Tillerson, in a rare public speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies on Wednesday, touted the U.S. relationship with India as a cornerstone of the liberal international order and called it a key part of U.S. efforts to shore up its position in the Indo-Pacific region.

“Our nations are two bookends of stability — on either side of the globe — standing for greater security and prosperity for our citizens and people around the world,” Tillerson said.

“The very international order that has benefited India’s rise — and that of many others — is increasingly under strain. China, while rising alongside India, has done so less responsibly, at times undermining the international, rules-based order even as countries like India operate within a framework that protects other nations’ sovereignty,” Tillerson said.

“I think it’s a love letter,” Bharath Gopalaswamy of the Atlantic Council told Foreign Policy. “It’s signaling a very strong, solidifying partnership.”

Tillerson’s words built on efforts during the Obama administration to deepen economic and defense ties with India, seeing it as a potential counterweight to a rising China.

But he also had words for India’s strategic rival, China, and particularly for Beijing’s biggest project, the sprawling “One Belt, One Road” plan to invest huge sums in Central and South Asia to connect China to Europe by land and by sea. Those projects, including everything from energy pipelines to railroads to power plants and ports, are meant to let China use its financial leverage to increase its diplomatic heft from Sri Lanka to Serbia.

While the Obama administration largely welcomed those efforts as a way to bring economic development and stability to a chaotic part of the world, Tillerson said China’s expansion produces more debt than development for those on the receiving end.

“It is important that those emerging democracies and economies have alternative means of developing both the infrastructures and the economies. We have watched the activities and actions of others in the region — in particular China,” Tillerson said, adding that the United States has started “a quiet conversation” with countries in the region on how to do things differently. China, he said, offers an example of “predatory economics.”

That represented the administration’s most direct repudiation of the One Belt, One Road strategy so far, said Alyssa Ayres of the Council of Foreign Relations. By zeroing in on how China hopes to expand its influence — through debt burdens that essentially put developing countries and some of their biggest assets in hock to Beijing — Tillerson was echoing concerns that India has raised about China’s geoeconomic expansion in its backyard, especially in Pakistan and Sri Lanka.

India’s been talking about those concerns for a while, Ayres said, and “Tillerson’s picking up on it as a core issue.”

The problem, Ayres and others said, is that the United States in years past has tried and failed to advance its own development plan for a “New Silk Road” in Central Asia — with nothing to show for it. Washington long tried to nudge Central and South Asian countries toward closer economic ties in the hopes that development would dampen conflict in the region.

Tillerson didn’t make clear what strategy the Trump administration may have in mind to push back against Chinese economic influence, especially given Beijing’s no-strings funding for all sorts of regimes.

The United States will “need to come up with something very specific and detailed” to counter China’s “question-free access to financing that suits the interest of countries in the immediate moment,” Ayres said.

Tanvi Madan of the Brookings Institution said Tillerson’s speech represented at least the beginning of a new policy for the region, but it needs to be backed up by concrete steps.

“The region will judge the administration’s commitment in terms of what it does,” she said. “But there’s clearly been at least a shift in rhetoric over One Belt One Road.”

The Chinese Embassy in Washington, D.C. said that Beijing upholds the global rules based-order, adding in time-honored Chinese diplomatic fashion: “We are fully committed to forging a fair and just world order together with the rest of the world, providing the greatest good for the greatest number of people through win-win cooperation.” The Embassy also responded to Tillerson’s more confrontational approach to China, saying, “The track record demonstrates that China and the U.S. are better together. We hope the U.S. side can work in the same direction with China to ensure the healthy and sound development of the China-US relationship.”

In terms of defense ties, Tillerson built on growing U.S.-India military cooperation that ramped up late in the Obama administration, calling the two countries “bookends of stability” in a troubled part of the world. He stressed growing defense cooperation between the two countries, and especially the annual three-way military exercises including Japan that are at the center of U.S. efforts to push back against China in the greater Indian Ocean area.

But a potential problem is that India has for decades gone its own way in terms of foreign policy — and even with a more pro-Western leader in Prime Minister Narendra Modi, that old notion of “nonalignment” or “strategic autonomy” remains alive and kicking among many Indian policy mandarins. Even in recent years, for example, India has redoubled defense and economic ties with Russia, even while it spurned the U.S.-led trade pact Trans-Pacific Partnership.

That calculus may slowly be changing in part in response to China’s economic and military transformation, said Milan Vaishnav of the Carnegie Endowment.

“What is changing is that the United States has grown into the role of a preferred partner — and the feeling is mutual.”

Emily Tamkin is the U.S. editor of the New Statesman and the author of The Influence of Soros, published July 2020. Twitter: @emilyctamkin

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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