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Tillerson Meets Modi In India


Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is in New Delhi, India, today. Weeks before President Trump visits China, Tillerson is in that other Asian nation with more than a billion people. NPR's Michele Kelemen has been traveling with the secretary of state. She's on the line from New Delhi.

Hi, Michele.


INSKEEP: So what're you guys been doing?

KELEMEN: Well, he started the day first in some meetings, but then he also went to visit the site of where Gandhi was assassinated. He took a look at some of the - his belongings that were there. He walked along the walk where Gandhi's last - where he went to go pray at the end, and they had put little rose petals along the path on every footstep. It was quite impressive.

And this was really the first time that we've seen Tillerson kind of doing that kind of diplomacy of going out and seeing something like that. I overheard him saying how important it is - you know, how Gandhi's words are still inspiring us today.

INSKEEP: Taking in the sights and also reminding Indians that he appreciates their national story - but he's doing this at a moment when President Trump is turning his focus to East Asia, thinking about North Korea, thinking about China. How, if at all, is India relevant to China from the United States' point of view?

KELEMEN: The Trump administration's really looking to India to play a much bigger role on the world stage. And particularly in India, the buzzwords that we're hearing now is the Indo-Pacific. That's what they're talking about. India and China, as you say, are both rising powers.

But Tillerson talked about this in a recent speech, that India's rising more responsibly. And he's trying to, you know, encourage that and build up this alliance - it would be U.S., India, Japan and possibly Australia - to keep open trade routes, to keep open shipping routes - and really, as a counterbalance to China. This is a big strategic push that Secretary Tillerson is making here in New Delhi.

INSKEEP: And I guess we should remind people, India, unlike China, is a democracy - relatively open political system. Let me ask...

KELEMEN: Sharing values - we heard a lot about that, as well.

INSKEEP: I would imagine so. What, if anything, can India do when it comes to the biggest problem - or the most immediate problem, I guess we should say - the administration is facing in the Pacific, North Korea?

KELEMEN: Well, it was interesting because India, actually, has a trade relationship with North Korea, and it has - they both have embassies. They did - they haven't cut diplomatic ties. And the Indian foreign minister was asked at a news conference with Tillerson today about this. She says that the Indian trade is minimal. That's what she said, and she didn't give any indication that the - that India's interested in cutting that off anytime soon.

She also said that the Indian embassy in Pyongyang is small but really important. She said it's important for the U.S. to have friends who have representatives in North Korea. She says this is channels of communications that could be very important.

INSKEEP: OK, so shared values, maybe, but not a shared approach to North Korea - in just a few seconds, Michele, how has Tillerson as Trump's representative been received as he's traveled through several countries?

KELEMEN: He's been received quite well. I mean, you know, there's all kinds of rumors about how long he's going to be in power back in Washington. But he's - you know, it's normal protocol here, and people are interested, especially in India, where they want to build up this relationship with the U.S.

INSKEEP: OK, Michele, thanks very much, as always. Enjoy your travels.

KELEMEN: Thank you.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Michele Kelemen in New Delhi, India.

(SOUNDBITE OF SABZI'S "CITY JEWELS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.