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Tillerson Off To Middle East And South Asia For A Round Of Diplomatic Tests


Secretary of State Tillerson faces some diplomatic tests this week. He's touring the Middle East and South Asia, where he has to manage a lot of prickly relationships. Saudi Arabia and Qatar, both U.S. allies, are still at odds. He's visiting each, and then he heads to India and Pakistan and hopes to forge a common approach on terrorism. NPR's Michele Kelemen is traveling with him.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Before leaving on his weeklong trip, Tillerson offered some insight into his approach to South Asia. He sees India as key, rising alongside China but in a more responsible way.


REX TILLERSON: The world's center of gravity is shifting to the heart of the Indo-Pacific. 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.

KELEMEN: For India watchers, it was a welcome speech. Alyssa Ayres of the Council on Foreign Relations has written a book about India's rise on the world stage called "Our Time Has Come."


ALYSSA AYRES: He clearly was signaling the desire to have a relationship with India that would be focused on upholding the liberal international order in a way that he clearly said China is not.

KELEMEN: But while Tillerson criticized China for its, quote, "predatory economics in the region," he didn't offer details about what the Trump administration might do to promote transparency and development. Ayres points out that this administration has been cutting its foreign affairs budget and promoting the so-called America First agenda.

AYRES: I think the administration is going to have to figure out how to realize this idea of partnering with India to uphold the liberal international order at a time when the kind of big strategic signals that have been coming out of the White House have been about retreat.

KELEMEN: Another challenge for Tillerson is to keep India involved in helping to rebuild Afghanistan while reassuring Pakistan that this is in its interests, too. Tillerson says solving Afghanistan requires a regional approach.


TILLERSON: And Pakistan is an important element of that. India is an important element of how we achieve the ultimate objective, which is a stable Afghanistan which no longer serves as a platform for terrorist organizations.

KELEMEN: Before trying to manage that India-Pakistan rivalry, though, the secretary has some other big disputes on his hands. He's trying to heal a deep rift between Saudi Arabia and Qatar and get them focused on fighting terrorism, according to his spokesperson Heather Nauert.


HEATHER NAUERT: The secretary is, you know, certainly discouraged that nothing has been resolved just yet.

KELEMEN: This is one of the areas where Tillerson has seemed at odds with President Trump, with the president taking Saudi Arabia's side while Tillerson expresses frustration with Riyadh.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the State Department. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.