U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton delivers her address at Anna Centenary Library in Chennai, India, July 20. Clinton hallenged India to expand its traditional sphere of interest from South Asia to neighboring regions to compete with increasing Chinese assertiveness. (Aijaz Rahi/AP)

As India becomes a more prosperous and powerful country, it needs to become a more assertive leader in Asia, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Wednesday.

“This is not a time when any of us can afford to look inward at the expense of looking outward,” Clinton said in a speech in this port city in southern India.

Urging Indian leadership in hot spots such as Afghanistan and Pakistan, as well as authoritarian neighbors such as Burma and Sri Lanka, Clinton’s hour-long speech boiled down to this essential message: With greater power — economically, diplomatically and militarily — comes greater responsibility.

“When I look at the potential of the people in this region, I am absolutely convinced you can out-compete, outgrow, out-prosper any one else in the world,” Clinton said. “But that’s why the barriers must come down.”

Stability in South Asia depends on a improved relationship between India and Pakistan, Clinton said, as well as participation by both those countries in efforts to stabilize Afghanistan and jump-start its economy. Democratic reforms to the east, in Burma and Sri Lanka, also depend on a stronger stance from India, she added.

According to U.S. officials, Clinton chose to give her speech in Chennai, a manufacturing hub with major economic ties to Southeast Asia, to send a message about India’s need to look east, beyond South Asia, and in some ways serve as a counterbalance to China’s growing power and assertiveness.

In recent years, even as other countries have taken tough stances against Burma because of its military government’s human-rights abuses, India has kept a foothold there. Indian officials have argued that if it abandons Burma, also known as Myanmar, it would drive leaders in that isolated state away from open, democratic countries and into the arms of China, Burma’s other significant regional partner.

“We recognize that India has important strategic interests in maintaining a peaceful border and strong economic ties with Burma. But the Burmese government’s treatment of its own people continues to be deplorable,” Clinton said.

After the speech, Clinton traveled to a women’s forum to talk to engineers and researchers trying to reduce the nearly 2 million annual deaths caused by badly designed cooking stoves in the developing world.

Clinton, who has used her position in recent years to champion the cause of marginalized women, said the issue, while unknown to many, is a matter of life and death in many areas.

In India alone, according to World Health Organization estimates, smoke exposure from dirty wood, coal and dung-burning stoves causes nearly 500,000 premature deaths each year among women and children.

Clinton said that when she helped create an international alliance develop low-cost, efficient and safe stoves in developing countries, the issue hadn’t “broken though to global consciousness yet. I think we’re now doing that, thanks to the data and the good work you’re all responsible for.”