Tillerson Makes Maiden South Asia Visit Amid Intensifying Challenges

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US secretary of state Rex Tillerson leaving Afghanistan’s Bagram Airfield on Monday after a secret two-hour visit. Image Credit: US State Department via Flickr

US secretary of state Rex Tillerson has begun his first trip to South Asia with a surprise visit to Afghanistan on Monday. His next stop is Islamabad. He’s slated to land in Delhi on Tuesday evening and hold official talks the next day.

Tillerson landed at Bagram Airfield north of Kabul on Monday, for a two-hour secret visit in which he met President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah.

That Tillerson chose to make his lightning visit at a heavily guarded military facility and not Afghanistan’s capital speaks of the precarious security situation. On Friday, twin suicide bombings by Islamic State killed at least 67 at two Shia mosques in Kabul. The next day, a Taliban suicide bomber killed 15 army cadets in a minibus traveling out of the city. The attack capped a bloody week in which about 250 have been slain in Afghanistan.

Tillerson’s gaze inevitably turned to Afghanistan’s southern neighbour. ‘Pakistan needs to, I think, take a clear eyed view of the situation that they’re confronted with in terms of the number of terrorist organizations that find safe haven inside of Pakistan’.

The US secretary of state is likely to take that attitude to Islamabad on Tuesday, even as he tries to re-establish a working relationship with Pakistan.

Next stop, India

Tillerson is scheduled to meet his counterpart Sushma Swaraj on Wednesday. China, Afghanistan, and Pakistan will naturally come up in their talks as will Iran. The two are also likely to discuss economic ties.

Ahead of his South Asia visit, Tillerson made a speech at a Washington think tank outlining his vision for India-US relations. The secretary of state hit all the right notes, making optimistic noises on trade and coming down unequivocally on terrorism.

However, much of Tillerson’s speech was dedicated to Asia-Pacific security. He lauded India’s role in the Indian Ocean region and talked up maritime and defence cooperation, which he said were crucial 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.’

Tillerson was also outspoken about China, unfavourably contrasting it with India.

‘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.’

The challenges ahead

While discussions between Swaraj and Tillerson about China and the Asia-Pacific will probably go well, talks about other issues are likely to be more difficult. The core reason for this is that the India-US strategic convergence, strong in the Indian Ocean, begins to dissipate moving westwards into Pakistan, Afghanistan and the Middle East.

This is compounded by the chaos in the Trump administration. In a new column, The Hindu’s diplomatic affairs editor, Suhasini Haidar notes that the Trump administration has repeatedly ‘sent out confusing signals, with policy, public statements, and Twitter bursts often contradicting each other.’

As evidence, Haidar points to how President Donald Trump contradicted his own defense secretary Jim Mattis’ concerns about Pakistan by tweeting: ‘Starting to develop a much better relationship with Pakistan and its leaders. I want to thank them for their cooperation on many fronts.’

Haidar also notes that America has once again joined the Quadrilateral Coordination Group, which is Pakistan-dominated, and plans to hold talks with the Taliban. The other three countries in the group are Afghanistan, China, and the US.

Even Tillerson’s Washington speech was not free of conflicting signals. At one point he said, ‘we intend to work closely with India and with Pakistan to, we hope, ease tensions along their border as well.’ Given India’s aversion to third party involvement in talks with Pakistan, it was a surprising thing to say.

Then there’s the matter of Iran. The US is expected to impose some non-nuclear related sanctions on Iran in the coming week. These are likely to make it harder to do business with that country.

Furthermore, as Haidar notes, if sanctions constrain Iran’s oil exports, it will have fewer incentives to develop the new Chabahar port with India. ‘This would certainly impact India’s plans for connectivity to Afghanistan and Central Asia,’ she writes.

Finally, even military cooperation, normally considered a painless aspect of the India-US relationship, will face obstacles as the US presses India to sign on to several so-called ‘foundational agreements’. As this blog has previously noted, many in India’s strategic community are skeptical about the wisdom of getting into agreements they fear might limit India’s options in the future.

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