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Tillerson pushes for stronger ties with India while chiding China for undermining international order

AFP-JIJI, Reuters, AP

The United States vowed Wednesday to work with India in preference to China over the next century to promote a “free and open” Asia-Pacific region led by prosperous democracies.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson delivered his unexpectedly sharp message to Beijing on the same day President Xi Jinping opened the Communist Party congress.

His upbeat speech was designed to set the stage for his visit next week to India, China’s main Asian rival, and to lay out a vision for a 100-year “strategic partnership” between Washington and New Delhi.

But President Donald Trump’s chief diplomat also took the opportunity to compare the United States and India — the world’s “two greatest democracies” — with China, which he said is undermining the “rules-based international order.”

Speaking less than a month before Trump makes his first state visit to China, Tillerson also said the United States has begun to discuss creating alternatives to Chinese infrastructure financing in Asia.

Tillerson did not detail what that alternative might be, but said the Trump administration had begun a “quiet conversation” with some emerging East Asian democracies at a summit in August.

He said Chinese financing is saddling countries with “enormous” debts and failing to create jobs. “We think it’s important that we begin to develop some means of countering that with alternative financing measures,” he said. “We will not be able to compete with the kind of terms that China offers, but countries have to decide what are they willing to pay to secure their sovereignty and their future control of their economies and we’ve had those discussions with them as well.”

In another comment likely to upset Beijing, he said Washington saw room to invite other nations, including Australia, to join U.S.-India-Japan security cooperation — something Beijing has opposed as an attempt by democracies to gang up on it.

After the speech, reporters asked a senior State Department official whether it had been intended as a warning or a rebuke to China.

“It’s a speech that was designed for many audiences,” he said, smiling. “The fact that he mentioned China is, obviously, built into the speech,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “But this is a speech, obviously, that we hope all countries in the Indo-Pacific region will take to heart.”

The official said the idea of a “New Pacific” is a priority for both Trump and Tillerson.

In concrete terms, this would mean a four-way arrangement of Australia, India, Japan and the United States to “anchor” the region and set standards for trade and security. Implicitly, this would exclude China.

Washington and New Delhi have been building stronger ties for some time, but Tillerson made one of the clearest cases that the “shared values” underpinning the relationship make India and the United States ideal partners.

As such, the speech also amounted to a warning to great power rival China that Washington will build regional alliances to counter its ever-growing clout and will promote free trade and open sea lanes.

“The United States and India are increasingly global partners with growing strategic convergence,” Tillerson said.

“Indians and Americans don’t just share an affinity for democracy. We share a vision of the future,” he said, projecting the relationship into the next 100 years.

Promising greater prosperity and security in a “free and open Indo-Pacific,” Tillerson did push India — which has its own range of protectionist laws — to open up its borders to more regional and U.S. trade.

But his harshest words were for China, the nearest rival to India’s huge population and the United States’ leading economy.

“China, while rising alongside India, has done so less responsibly, at times undermining the international rules-based order,” Tillerson chided. “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.”

As it has slowly emerged as a powerful economy, India has avoided entangling alliances, preferring to maintain cautious relations with both Washington and Beijing, but Trump has built warm relations with Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Last month, the chief of India’s army warned that China had been “testing our limits” in a recent border standoff and warned that New Delhi’s forces must be ready for conflict.

India and China went to war in 1962 over the state of Arunachal Pradesh. China has maintained better ties with Delhi’s main foe, Pakistan.

Tillerson did not directly address August’s standoff on the Doklam plateau in the Himalayas, which is claimed by both China and Bhutan, an ally of India. But he vowed that Washington “won’t shrink from China’s challenges to the rules-based order, or where China subverts the sovereignty of neighboring countries.”

And he approvingly cited U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis’ declaration “that the world’s two greatest democracies should have the two greatest militaries.”

Tillerson noted the Indian Navy now flies the American P-8 surveillance aircraft alongside U.S. forces and promised to help India in developing a carrier-borne strike force.

The secretary was speaking to guests of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. He is due in New Delhi next week for talks with Indian leaders.

Trump’s trip to Asia next month will include a stop in Beijing, where he will try to build on an early rapport he has developed with Xi and push for action to contain North Korea’s nuclear threat — a task that may be made harder by the Indian outreach.

The U.S. decision to expand relations with India also will almost certainly upset Pakistan, where Tillerson also will stop next week, said a senior State Department official.

Pakistan was the main U.S. ally in South Asia for decades, but U.S. officials are frustrated with what they charge has been Pakistan’s failure to cut support for the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan, where the administration wants India to play a bigger role in economic development.

As part of a South Asia strategy unveiled by Trump in August, Tillerson is expected to press Islamabad, which denies aiding the Taliban, to take stronger steps against extremists and allied groups and intensify efforts to pressure them to agree to peace talks with Kabul.

Trump has threatened further cuts in U.S. aid to Pakistan if it fails to cooperate.

In July, the U.S. imposed sanctions against Hizbul Mujahideen, a Pakistan-based rebel group that fights against Indian control in the divided Himalayan region of Kashmir.

On Wednesday, Tillerson called for Pakistan “to take decisive action against terrorist groups based within their own borders that threaten its own people and the broader region.”

He noted that the U.S. and India are leading regional efforts on counterterrorism, saying they are “cross-screening” known and suspected terrorists and later this year will convene a new dialogue on terrorist designations.

Last week, Pakistan, acting on U.S. intelligence, secured the release of a U.S.-Canadian family held by a Taliban-linked group for five years, a rare recent boost for the relationship between Islamabad and Washington. Also on Wednesday, Vice President Mike Pence spoke with Pakistani Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, thanking him for Pakistan’s help.