Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Wednesday called for a partnership with India to protect an "international order" threatened by the rise of China.
"[T]he world – and the Indo-Pacific in particular – needs the United States and India to have a strong partnership," Tillerson said Wednesday during an address at the Center for Strategic & International Studies.
Tillerson touted the 70th anniversary of relations with India, but the speech was more than a commemorative event. He acknowledged the potential threat posed by China, which has emerged as an economic heavyweight but asserted control over key shipping lanes in the region. Tillerson hopes to counteract these moves with a deliberate strengthening of ties with India, the world's largest democracy.
"It is indeed time to double down on a democratic partner that is still rising – and rising responsibly – for the next 100 years," Tillerson said.
Without such a relationship, Tillerson suggested that the region would come under China's thumb. In opposition to that outcome, particularly China's claim to sovereignty over most of the South China Sea, Tillerson struck a more internationalist tone than commonly associated with the "America First" agenda touted by the Trump administration.
"China, while rising alongside India, has done so less responsibly, at times undermining the international, rules-based order even as countries like India operate within a framework that protects other nations' sovereignty," Tillerson said. "The United States seeks constructive relations with China, but we will not shrink from China's challenges to the rules-based order and where China subverts the sovereignty of neighboring countries and disadvantages the U.S. and our friends."
Tillerson warned of soft domination by China through "predatory economics" — a shot at the Communist power's reputation for so-called "white elephant" infrastructure projects in neighboring countries. These projects purport to be an economic boon, but U.S. officials say they're vehicles for corruption and "saddling [the countries] with enormous levels of debt," as Tillerson noted.
"Financing is structured in a way that makes it very difficult for them to obtain future financing, and oftentimes has very subtle triggers in the financing that results in financing default and the conversion of debt to equity," he said.
That may create an opportunity for the United States and India to cooperate to counterbalance China's influence, Tillerson suggested, by providing alternative sources of investment. "We will not be able to compete with the kind of [financial] terms that China offers, and – but countries have to decide: What are they willing to pay to secure their sovereignty and their future control of their economies?" Tillerson said.
Trump's withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade agreement involving 11 other Pacific Rim countries, was widely seen as a blow to American allies and a boon for China. The deal was designed, in part, to keep those nations within the United States sphere of influence and make them more resilient in the face of Chinese pressure. But Tillerson made clear that competing in the Pacific remains a goal for the Trump team.
And the pursuit of that effort will be organized around the relationship with India. "The world's center of gravity is shifting to the heart of the Indo-Pacific," he said. "The U.S. and India – with our shared goals of peace, security, freedom of navigation, and a free and open architecture – must serve as the eastern and western beacons of the Indo-Pacific. As the port and starboard lights between which the region can reach its greatest and best potential."