Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton took aim on Monday at China's model of economic growth without democracy, arguing that it undermines long-term prospects and urging other Asian countries to expand markets and political freedom at the same time.
Without mentioning Beijing by name, Clinton laid out a week of diplomatic efforts she'll make across Asia to press governments into improving the rule of law and free expression.
Speaking at a woman's event in Mongolia, China's northern neighbour, she said limiting freedom "kills innovation and discourages entrepreneurship," and ultimately undermines economic expansion.
"We need to make the 21st century a time in which people across Asia don't only become more wealthy," she said. "They must also become more free."
The message reflects the battle of values between Washington and Beijing as they jostle for strategic and economic advantages across the continent. President Barack Obama has tried to pivot US power to the region, in part to reverse a slide toward China in recent years as its economy boomed and America's struggled.
Clinton, who'll also visit Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia over the next five days, held up Mongolia as a positive example of advancement.
"My trip reflects a strategic priority of American foreign policy today," Clinton said. "After 10 years in which we focused a great deal of attention on the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, the United States is making substantially increased investments diplomatic, economic, strategic and otherwise in this part of the world. It's what we call our pivot toward Asia."
"This is the right time to talk about democracy in Asia, as many countries in this region grapple with the question of which model of governance best suits their society and circumstances," she said. "The path they choose will shape the lives of billions of people and the future of this region."