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US' Tillerson wants closer India relations

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson shakes hands with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi before their meeting at the Prime Minister's residence in New Delhi, India, October 25, 2017 REUTERS/Alex Brandon/Pool TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson praised bilateral relations with India on a visit there Wednesday after a fractious stop in Pakistan. He's laying out the new US strategy for Afghanistan and says India's role is crucial.

"India plays an important role in the fight against terrorism," US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Wednesday during his first official visit to New Delhi.

India was the final stop on his Middle East and South Asia tour, after visiting Pakistan, Iraq, Afghanistan, Qatar and Saudi Arabia.

"The United States will continue to stand shoulder to shoulder with India," he told reporters during a press conference with India's Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj.

"Terrorist safe havens will not be tolerated."

The message was a thinly veiled attack against Pakistan, which he had accused of providing "safe havens" for Taliban militants.

Quite the opposite of India, which Tillerson praised for its "generous contribution" to the construction of the Salma dam and Afghan parliament, amongst other development projects.

India role in Afghanistan

But bringing in India--Pakistan's arch rival-- to help fund Afghanistan's reconstruction crosses red lines of their own, says Scott Lucas, a professor of international politics at Birmingham University.

"That to the Pakistanis was like inviting India into an area of their concern," he told RFI.

"Even if it made good sense for the US in trying to get good relations with India, it completely unsettled the question of what was being done in Afghanistan and more broadly in central Asia."

The US has made turning the fight around in Afghanistan a lynchpin of its new South Asia strategy that was unveiled by President Donald Trump in August.

So far, India has contributed some three billion euros to that effort.

But it will want an economic cut in return.

Tillerson has offered New Delhi ambitious military aid, telling his Indian partners that American firms were lining up to sell them F16 and F18 fighter jets to help modernise their technology.

"That is not a good thing, we should not spend so much in defence," Indira Hirway, an economics professor at the Center for Development Alternatives in the city of Ahmedabad, western India, told RFI.

"Especially if the US is giving aid to Pakistan and ammunitions also, it's creating unnecessary tension in the subcontinent," she said.

Regional rivalries

Tensions in the Indo-Pacific region are already high as result of China's foreign policy, which the US deems provocative. Tillerson said it was "posing a challenge to the rules-based international order".

In that context, he's betting on closer cooperation with India, and Pakistan to a lesser extent to counter Beijing's rising influence, particularly in the South China Sea.

But he's going about it the wrong way thinks Hirway. "You make two countries fight by supplying your defence industry and America has a very developed ammunition industry, so they would not mind selling. That helps their economy," she said.

Iran factor

US-Indian trade relations were valued at 100 billion euros in 2016 according to Tillerson, who said that their relationship "touches many parts of the lives of both [their] citizens."

Tillerson is hoping to secure more US leverage on issues of free trade and the South China Sea dispute, but he also wants India's help in dealing with Iran.

"Remember the India trip is also about Iran," says Lucas.

President Donald Trump has accused Iran of violating the spirit of the landmark 2015 nuclear deal, and in July imposed sanctions against Teheran over its ballistic missile programme and alleged funding of terrorist groups.

"The Indians are one of Iran's largest trading partners," continues Lucas. "The US State Department is smart enough to realize they can't just say: 'You can't trade with Iran,' so the message now is 'You want to be careful with how far you get invested in Iran'."

Lack of expertise

Tillerson may woo his Indian partners with alternative banking arrangements or financial assistance for not doing business with Tehran, but he lacks the clout to follow through on his promises, reckons Lucas.

"Tillerson can go over there and say we're going to do this and this, but can he back up what he's arguing?"

With the recent cuts in the US State department, which still lacks an Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian Affairs, this seems unlikely.

Having an unpredictable president may undermine Tillerson’s authority, but poor organisation is the main one, says Lucas.

The feeling in New Delhi, meanwhile, is that robust US-India relations may be too soon. The liberalization of India's economy only 25 years ago may explain that.

"I want the US and India to have good relations but the prospects for that are not there yet," thinks Indira Hirway.