CHENNAI, India — U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Wednesday challenged India to expand its traditional sphere of interest from South Asia to neighboring regions where it can help the United States blunt China's increasing assertiveness.
Clinton appealed for India to project its influence eastward, toward China's backyard in Southeast Asia and the Pacific Rim, as well as boost engagement in Central Asia, on China's western flank. She said the U.S. and India shared values that made them powerful partners in promoting security, democracy and development in areas into which China has made a push for dominance.
"Our interests align and our values converge," she said in a speech in India's southeastern port of Chennai, a fast-growing manufacturing hub chosen as the venue by U.S. officials who believe it is a natural jumping-off point for a greater Indian role in East Asia. With its democratic traditions, India can "inspire others to follow a similar path of openness and tolerance," Clinton said.
"India's leadership has the potential to positively shape the future of the Asia-Pacific," she said. "We think that America and India share a fundamentally similar vision for the future of this region."
Clinton announced that the Obama administration would soon launch a three-way dialogue with India and Japan, long America's chief ally in countering Chinese ambitions.
In another bid to lure Indian eyes east, the administration has decided to invite India to participate as an observer, for the first time, in the annual Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum that the U.S. will host in Hawaii in November, according to American officials. Membership in the group is limited to nations and economies that border the Pacific Ocean, which India does not.
Clinton was careful not to specifically identify China as the target of the effort to court India as an Asia-Pacific power. But, her comments left little doubt about U.S. intentions.
She noted that China is a major player with which both the U.S. and India have differences. India and China are uneasy neighbors that fought a war in 1962, although there have been recent improvements in the relationship. Clinton stressed that cordial relations between India, China and the United States were important.
"This will not always be easy," she said. But she added that "if we want to address, manage or solve some of the most pressing issues of the 21st century, India, China and the United States will have to coordinate our efforts."
From Chennai, Clinton travels Thursday to Indonesia for a regional security conference, where she is expected to renew U.S. concerns about Chinese aggressiveness toward its neighbors, particularly in the South China Sea, where there are numerous territorial disputes. Her comments on Wednesday set the stage for potentially uncomfortable meetings with Chinese officials in the coming days.
In Indonesia, Clinton is expected to hold talks with Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi, a discussion that some speculated Beijing might cancel in retaliation for President Barack Obama's meeting last weekend with the Dalai Lama. On Monday, Clinton plans to travel from Hong Kong to the southern Chinese mainland city of Shenzhen, where she is to see Chinese State Councilor Dai Bingguo.
Last year, Clinton raised Beijing's ire by saying that maritime security in the South China Sea, over which China claims sovereignty, was a U.S. national security interest. She made the matter a central point of her participation in the East Asia Summit hosted by Vietnam.
Obama plans to attend this year's summit in Indonesia and Clinton made a point of mentioning that Obama looks forward to meeting Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh at the event this fall.
"We want to work with India and all our friends and allies in the region to build the (summit) into the Asia-Pacific's premier forum for dealing with political and security issues, setting the priorities and vision for other regional institutions," she said.
In her speech Wednesday, Clinton said India could play an important role in helping to promote maritime security beyond its territorial waters.
"The United States has always been a Pacific power because of our very great blessing of geography, and India, straddling the waters from the Indian to Pacific oceans, is with us a steward of these waterways," she said. "We are both deeply invested in shaping the future of the rapidly changing region they connect."
Turning to Central Asia, Clinton reassured India that the United States would not abandon Afghanistan or allow it to become a haven for terrorism again, and made clear that the U.S. has a vital ongoing stake in ensuring stability in India's archrival, Pakistan. But India should play a constructive role, too, she said.
Clinton said it was in India's interest to spend time and resources on developing regional infrastructure, including pipeline, energy, road and rail projects that will boost commerce and serve as a "new silk road," referring to the famed ancient trade route. At the same time, she said it was important to eliminate archaic trade barriers to the benefit of Indian businesses.
"Helping people see regional neighbors as potential customers rather than adversaries is an important first step toward building a broad-based constituency for peace and profitable coexistence," she said.
The new silk road would help Afghanistan recover from decades of war without becoming a permanent recipient of outside aid, Clinton said. This, in turn, would improve living standards and help stamp out poverty, which is a main cause of extremism, throughout Central Asia.
Clinton admitted that the enhanced leadership role that she was asking India to play was ambitious.
"Yes, it is an ambitious agenda, but we can afford to be ambitious," she said. "This is not a time when any of us can afford to look inward at the expense of looking outward. This is a time to seize the opportunities of the 21st century and it is a time to lead."