India won’t miss Tillerson

India won’t miss Tillerson

M.K. Bhadrakumar,
Rex Tillerson

With the exit of Rex Tillerson as secretary of state, a new chapter is set to begin in the Trump administration’s foreign policies. Certainly, this was not how president-elect Trump anticipated things to happen when he found that his preferred nominee as secretary of state Rudi Giuliani might run into headwinds in the Congress, and, therefore, settled for Tillerson in preference to names favored by the Washington establishment (John Bolton, David Petraeus, etc.) It was an “inspired choice” because Tillerson, with his background in international commerce and business, fitted into Trump’s conception of US diplomacy providing underpinning to America First.

But for a variety of reasons, Tillerson didn’t measure up to that expectation. He instead ended up significantly contributing to the “re-militarization” of US foreign policies in the post-Obama era.

In immediate terms, the positive impact of Tillerson’s dismissal may be felt on the US policies toward Syria. Despite Trump’s aversion to getting involved in new Middle Eastern wars and notwithstanding his pledge that the US role in Syria would be strictly limited to fighting the ISIS, Defence Secretary James Mattis is acting the John Wayne way by secretly pushing a hybrid war directed against Russia, Iran and the Assad regime. Some US lawmakers have questioned the US’ intentions in Syria. But Mattis no longer has a free hand to push forward his agenda in Syria in the post-Tillerson scenario.

Meanwhile, rumors are swirling that after Tillerson, it is going to be National Security Advisor HR Macmaster’s turn next to get the marching order from Trump. It will be interesting to see whether Trump selects a civilian as the next NSA.

From the Indian perspective, Tillerson’s exit is of some interest insofar as he put the stamp on reviving the moribund idea of the ‘Quad’. His speech at the CSIS last October marked the high point in the US rhetoric over “Indo-Pacific”. Tillerson said all the right things to encourage India to pursue the hardline course toward China. Indeed, Tillerson’s remarks aimed at creating the setting for his first and only visit to Delhi in late October, primarily to make a strong pitch for the Lockheed Martin’s bid to persuade India to accept the production line of the outmoded F-16 jet fighter. (India of course balked.)

But much water has flown down the Ganges since then. If Trump’s visit to China in November underscored the high importance he attaches to constructive engagement with China, his Asian tour exposed that the US lacked an alternate regional strategy to rival China’s expanding influence in Asia. Equally, the APEC and ASEAN summits also displayed that tensions in the South China Sea were abating and that the new ‘hot spot’ is going to be North Korea (where the US desperately needs China’s help.)

Meanwhile, the Chinese Communist Party’s party congress asserted that China’s rise is a geopolitical reality that cannot be ‘contained’ anymore. All this — plus, of course, the “lessons” from the Doklam faceoff – has prompted a rethink in India’s own regional strategy in a direction that one may call a ‘demilitarization’ of sorts of our foreign policy too. The jettisoning of muscularity in relations with the South Asian neighbors – Nepal, Sri Lanka and the Maldives – testifies to it. The stirrings in India-China relations confirm that India is conclusively bidding farewell to the ‘Quad’.

On the whole, Indian foreign policy is discovering that there is a whole world lying out there beyond the “defining partnership” with the US. Simply put, India won’t miss Tillerson.