China, Russia roles in Americas 'alarming', says Rex Tillerson

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Russia had continued to sell arms and military equipment to unfriendly governments that "do not share or respect democratic values." PHOTO: REUTERS

AUSTIN (AFP, NYTimes) - US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson warned on Thursday (Feb 1) that China and Russia are assuming "alarming" roles in Latin America and urged regional powers to work with the United States instead.

"China's offer always comes at a price," Tillerson said in a speech at the University of Texas, Austin, where he was once a student.

"Latin America doesn't need new imperial powers that seek only to benefit their own people," Tillerson said, in a major policy address before his first tour of South American capitals.

"China's state-led model of development is reminiscent of the past. It doesn't have to be the hemisphere's future," he said, warning that "unfair trading practices" would cost local jobs.

Tillerson said China was now the largest trading partner with Chile, Argentina, Brazil and Peru and said strong institutions and accountable governments were needed to secure sovereignty against "potential predatory actors" arriving in their region.

Tillerson said Russia had continued to sell arms and military equipment to unfriendly governments that "do not share or respect democratic values".

"Our region must be diligent to guard against far-away powers that do not reflect the fundamental values shared in this region," he said.

"The United States stands in vivid contrast. We do not seek short-term deals with lop-sided returns," Tillerson said.

In wide-ranging remarks, Tillerson also pledged more help in Mexico's fight against drug cartels and Colombia's peace initiative and efforts to cut back on coca production.

He also called on both Cuba and Venezuela to embrace democracy, and said that updating the North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta) and striking other trade deals were a priority.

But his most pointed remarks came in his warning against Russian military sales and trade with China, which has displaced the United States as the largest trading partner for Chile, Argentina, Peru and Brazil.

"Our region must be diligent to guard against faraway powers," he said in an echo of what Chinese officials say about the United States in Asia.

Left unsaid, though, was that the Trump administration has pulled back from trade agreements like the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which is intended to serve as a check on China. The Chinese have been eager to fill the vacuums left by the United States on the world stage.

Tillerson delivered his speech exactly one year after he was confirmed as Secretary of State. It was the most confident of his tenure, as he easily fielded students' questions with great detail and without notes. Stories have receded about Tillerson's troubled relationship with Trump and of his own imminent departure, a narrative supplied privately by critics in the White House.

Indeed, Tillerson is widely expected to remain in his post at least through the summer, and his relationship with Trump appears to have stabilised. Asked in December whether he was enjoying his job, Tillerson gave a tight smile and offered: "I'm learning to enjoy it."

Tillerson addressed staff and students at the University of Texas before flew out on a six-day five-nation tour of Mexico, Argentina, Peru, Colombia and Jamaica.

On Friday morning, Tillerson is expected to tour the Metropolitan Cathedral in Mexico City.

He will then fly to Nahuel Huapi National Park in Bariloche, Argentina, a vast wilderness on the northern edge of Patagonia, where he plans to ascend an Andean summit on horseback.

In a briefing for reporters, a senior State Department official said the trip to Bariloche was meant to highlight scientific and research exchanges between the two countries.

Unmentioned was how much Tillerson likes horseback riding.

But back at the State Department, morale remains troubled amid serious cutbacks, a grinding reorganisation and an exodus of senior diplomats that continued on Thursday.

Thomas A. Shannon Jr, the undersecretary of state for political affairs, announced his resignation as the department's third-highest ranking official.

He will serve until his successor is confirmed by the Senate, according to Heather Nauert, the department's spokesman, a process that is likely to take months.

The timing of Shannon's announcement was driven by his promise to stay through Tillerson's first year, said Steve Goldstein, the department's undersecretary for public affairs. Goldstein said Shannon had been hoping to spend more time with his father, following his mother's death late last year.

In a statement, Tillerson praised Shannon's "devotion to service that has and shall continue to inspire State Department colleagues".

John F. Kelly, the White House chief of staff, released a statement saying the "nation owes him a debt of gratitude".

Of the five "career ambassadors," the department's highest rank, who were in place in January 2017, only one will remain after Shannon departs. Scores of others who held ranks just beneath Shannon's have left.

Shannon was unusual in that he seemed to thrive during Tillerson's first year.

In the administration's first months, Tillerson often decided against attending formal functions at the White House and sent Shannon to serve in his place. When Trump met with the leaders of Japan, Britain and Canada, Shannon was by the President's side.

But within the department, Shannon was widely rumoured to be unhappy with Tillerson's decisions to ignore many of the department's top experts, as well as his failure to identify a cadre of senior leaders or fill vacancies in a large number of ambassadorships. It was often Shannon who delivered the news to senior diplomats that they were being pushed out of their jobs or would not get the postings they had been promised.

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