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CHENNAI, India (AP) — 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.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.

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