Washington: Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called on Wednesday for US and India to expand strategic ties. He also pointedly criticised China, which he accused of challenging international norms needed for global stability.
Tillerson's remarks on relations between the world's two largest democracies, ahead of his first trip to South Asia as secretary of state, risked endearing Washington to one Asian power while alienating another.
Tillerson said the world needed the US and India to have a strong partnership. He said the two nations share goals of security, free navigation, free trade and fighting terrorism in the Indo-Pacific, and serve as "the eastern and western beacons" for an international rules-based order which is increasingly under strain.
Both India and China had benefited from that order, but Tillerson said India had done so while respecting rules and norms, while China had "at times" undermined them. To make his point, he alluded to China's island building and expansive territorial claims in seas where Beijing has long-running disputes with Southeast Asian neighbours.
"China's provocative actions in the South China Sea directly challenge the international law and norms that the United States and India both stand for," Tillerson said in an address at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank.
He also accused China of economic activities and financing that saddles developing countries in the region with enormous debt.
China responded with a statement saying it "contributes to and defends the rules-based world order" and seeks to advance international cooperation through the United Nations. It also hopes for a "healthy and sound" China-US relationship.
"We will never seek hegemony or engage in expansion, never pursue development at the expense of others' interests," said the statement issued by the Chinese embassy in Washington.
A senior State Department official told reporters that the speech was intended to map out a strategy for US-India relations for the next century, in which the region's leading democracies — also including Japan and Australia — blunt China's growing influence and challenges to the rules-based order. The official was not authorised to speak by name and requested anonymity.
Tillerson said the US seeks constructive relations with China but "won't shrink" from the challenges it poses when it "subverts the sovereignty of neighbouring countries, and disadvantages the US and our friends."
US-India relations have generally prospered in the past decade, in part because of their shared concerns about the rise of China — whose leader Xi Jinping told a ruling communist party congress on Wednesday that it was time for China "to take centre stage in the world and to make a greater contribution to humankind."
While President Donald Trump has looked to deepen cooperation with China on addressing the nuclear threat from North Korea, he's sought a much closer relationship with India, which also shares US worries on Islamic extremism.
"In this period of uncertainty and angst, India needs a reliable partner on the world stage. I want to make clear: with our shared values and vision for global stability, peace and prosperity, the United States is that partner," Tillerson said. Tillerson said the US wants to improve India's military capabilities, it has offered to sell it unarmed Guardian surveillance drones, aircraft carrier technologies and F-18 and F-16 fighter aircraft, he said.
He said the US and India were leading regional efforts on counter-terrorism. He said they were "cross-screening" known and suspected terrorists, and later in 2018 will convene a new dialogue on terrorist designations. In July, the US sanctioned Hizbul Mujahideen, a Pakistan-based rebel group that fights against Indian control in the divided Himalayan region of Kashmir.
Tillerson called Wednesday for Pakistan "to take decisive action against terrorist groups based within their own borders that threaten its own people and the broader region." Last week, Pakistan, acting on US intelligence, secured the release of a US-Canadian family held by a Taliban-linked group for five years, a rare boost for a relationship snared on Islamabad's links to militants in Afghanistan. On Wednesday, Vice President Mike Pence spoke with Pakistani Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi and thanking him for Pakistan's help.
Pence called it an "important development in its support for US strategy against terrorism in the region, but highlighted that cooperation against militant groups must be continued and sustained," a White House statement said.
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Updated Date: Oct 20, 2017 15:11:45 IST