India says ready for stronger U.S. ties after Tillerson endorsement

NEW DELHI (Reuters) - India stood ready to further strengthen ties with the United States, the government said on Friday, after U.S. Secretary of State Tillerson vowed to dramatically expand cooperation as a way to counter China’s influence in Asia.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson arrives to deliver remarks on Relationship with India for the Next Century at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, U.S., October 18, 2017. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

Tillerson, who is visiting India next week as part of a tour to the region, said in a speech the United States had begun to discuss alternatives to Chinese infrastructure financing in Asia that critics say has spawned resentment and fears of a debt trap.

He also called for expanding the scope of security cooperation between India, the United States and Japan to include other countries such as Australia, a plan that China has said in the past would be de-stabilising to the region.

An Indian foreign ministry spokesman said Tillerson had made an important speech on the future of India-U.S. relations and India looked forward to detailed discussions next week.

“We appreciate his positive evaluation of the relationship and share his optimism about its future directions,” the spokesman said.

Tillerson did not say what he meant by creating an alternative to Chinese infrastructure financing, which India has also been increasingly concerned about as China seeks to build trade and transport links in Asia.

India was the only major country in Asia not to send a representative to a “Belt and Road Initiative” summit in Beijing in May because an economic corridor that China was building in Pakistan ran through territory claimed by India.

India warned that China’s plans for a modern-day “Silk Road” could create an “unsustainable debt burden” for countries.

The ministry spokesman said India agreed with Tillerson’s call for a “rules-based” international order that is seen as under risk from China’s assertive posture in Asia.

The United States has repeatedly criticized China for disregarding international law with the construction and militarization of artificial islands in the disputed South China Sea, where neighbors Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam have claims.

“Tillerson has made a significant policy statement on India-U.S. relations and its future. He brought out its various strengths and highlighted our shared commitment to a rule-based international order,” the Indian spokesman said.

India, though, has been wary of U.S. calls for a bigger Indian military role including joint patrols in the Indian Ocean and the Pacific, worried it would antagonise China further.

Editing by Robert Birsel