By: Lachlan Carmichael, AFP
Published: 16/02/2009 at 02:48 AM
Washington - US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is due in Japan on Monday for an Asian tour, pledging to deepen US bonds with the region in order to tackle the global economic crisis and climate change as well as prevent nuclear proliferation.
The new US secretary of state's choice of travel to Japan, where she is expected on Monday, as well as to Indonesia, South Korea and China, reflects the quest for a long-term strategy to deal with the changing dynamic in world economic, political and military power, analysts say.
"I hope to signal that we need strong partners across the Pacific... Our relationships with each of the countries I’m visiting, and with all of our partners and allies throughout Asia and the Pacific, are indispensable to our security and prosperity."
Her predecessors usually travelled first to Europe or the Middle East.
Clinton is due to visit Japan from Monday to Wednesday, Indonesia on Wednesday and Thursday (Feb 18-19), South Korea from Thursday to Friday (Feb 19-20), and China for three days beginning Friday (Feb 20-22).
Indonesia will be the only stop in Southeast Asia, an itinerary that has many in Thailand wondering if the new administration intends to take old friends for granted.
Green said Clinton may lay the groundwork for a "transformed relationship, new strategic partnership" with the world's largest Muslim-majority country.
Two days ahead of her departure, Clinton said she was "ready to work with leaders in Asia to resolve the economic crisis" and "strengthen our historic partnerships and alliances."
In her first foreign policy speech delivered before the New York-based Asia Society, Clinton said she also is "ready to help prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons in Asia."
Clinton added that North Korea's nuclear programme remains "the most acute challenge to stability in northeast Asia."
She said President Barack Obama's administration would build a strong relationship with the reclusive Stalinist regime if it scraps its nuclear program, which alarmed the world in 2006 with the test of a nuclear device.
If Pyongyang "completely and verifiably" eliminates the program, Washington "will be willing to normalize bilateral relations, replace the peninsula's longstanding armistice agreements with a permanent peace treaty."
She added Washington would also "assist in meeting the energy and other economic needs of the North Korean people," who face hunger and economic hardships.
Under a landmark deal in 2007 with the United States, China, South Korea, Japan and Russia, North Korea agreed to eliminate its weapons-grade nuclear programs in exchange for energy aid.
The talks stalled late last year when North Korea balked at its five partners' demands for inspections and other steps to verify disarmament.
Clinton also said it is "incumbent on North Korea to avoid any provocative action and unhelpful rhetoric toward South Korea," after North Korea scrapped military accords with the South in the last few weeks.
Reports from South Korea also say it is preparing for the launch of a long-range missile.
The Chicago Council on Global Affairs said Clinton will arrive in a region where US soft power - the use of economic, diplomatic and cultural clout to influence the world rather than brute military force - still holds sway.
Clinton's travel plans show "the Obama administration is determined to make use of this strength to address the many challenges in the region," Thomas Wright, an executive at the Chicago Council, said in a statement.
The council based its conclusion on a 2008 survey of 6,000 people in China, the United States, Japan, South Korea, Indonesia and Vietnam.
US officials said Clinton will travel with Todd Stern, her special envoy for climate change, and Christopher Hill, the Bush administration's negotiator on North Korea who is now a leading candidate to become ambassador to Iraq.
Michael Green, a former Asia adviser to president George W. Bush, said Clinton appears to have chosen Japan for her first Asia stop to smooth feathers she ruffled there when she wrote during her campaign for the US presidency that the US-China relationship will be the most important one.
In Tokyo, Center for International and Strategic Studies (CSIS) expert Nicholas Szechenyi said, Clinton will discuss the financial crisis with Japanese leaders, possibly with a view to coordinating positions before the G20 summit in April in London.
Japan will likely raise its concerns about Japanese nationals whom North Korea abducted to train as spies during the Cold War after complaining the United States has relegated the issue in the nuclear disarmament negotiations.
Bonnie Glaser, a China expert at CSIS, expected Clinton's visit to Beijing to tackle North Korea, the financial crisis and climate change, but tread carefully on human rights.
China, she said, may repeat that it wants the United States to stop arms sales to Taiwan, but may settle for some "face-saving gesture by Washington to resume" high-level military exchanges suspended last year.