Warning for China as US hails India 'partnership'

2017-10-19 11:13
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. (Mark Thiessen, AP File)

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. (Mark Thiessen, AP File)

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Washington - The US vowed on 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.

US 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 a visit next week to China's main Asian rival India, and to lay out a vision for a 100-year "strategic partnership" between Washington and New Delhi.

READ: US urges China, Russia to act after North Korea missile launch

But US President Donald Trump's chief diplomat also took the opportunity to compare the US and India - the world's "two greatest democracies" - with China, which he said was undermining the "rules-based international order".

Coming on the day Xi opened a party congress designed to further secure his long-term control of what is already one of the most powerful Chinese presidencies in history, Tillerson's address will be seen as provocative.

Regional alliances

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."

Washington and 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 US 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 power, while promoting free trade and open sea lanes.

"The United States and India are increasingly global partners with growing strategic convergence," he 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 US trade.

Four-way arrangement

But his harshest words were for China, the Asian economic behemoth and the nearest rival to India's huge population or to the US's still world-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."

The senior US official, briefing reporters to flesh out the themes of the speech, said the idea of a "New Pacific" is a priority for both Trump and Tillerson.

In more concrete terms this would mean a four-way arrangement of Australia, India, Japan and the US to "anchor" the huge region and set standards for trade and security. Implicitly, this would exclude China.

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.

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