WASHINGTON (AFP) — Hillary Clinton, who heads to Asia next week on her maiden mission, is bowing to an increasingly powerful region in order to tackle the global economic crisis, climate change and nuclear weapons.
The new US secretary of state's choice of travel to Japan, 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.
Her predecessors usually traveled first to Europe or the Middle East.
For Michael Green, a former Asia adviser to president George W. Bush, Clinton is right to now focus the "US government on the challenges and opportunities" in Asia.
To be sure, he told reporters at a gathering here organized by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), the crises of the moment are in the world financial markets, the Middle East, Iraq, Afghanistan and Iran.
"But in the longer sweep of history, historians will judge this administration and our generation on how we managed the shift of power from the West to East and the rise of China and India and the growing confidence and activism of countries like Indonesia, Japan and Korea," Green said.
And unlike in the Middle East and Europe, where US standing fell after the 2003 invasion of Iraq, in Asia President Barack Obama's administration has inherited from his predecessor a strong position on which to build.
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 shows "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.
Green expected the chief US diplomat to focus on defusing the US-induced world financial crisis, fighting climate change, and reviving the six-party negotiations aimed at scrapping North Korea's nuclear weapons.
Japan, South Korea and China are negotiating partners with North Korea, along with the United States and Russia.
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.
Green 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, CSIS Japan 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.
It is also concerned about reports North Korea is pushing ahead with preparations to launch its longest-range missile despite international appeals for restraint, Szechenyi said.
Clinton, analysts added, will also have to deal with growing alarm in South Korea over Pyongyang's increasingly "bellicose" talk, including its scrapping of peace accords between the two countries.
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.
In Indonesia, the only stop in Southeast Asia, Green said Clinton may lay the groundwork for a "transformed relationship, new strategic partnership" with the world's largest Muslim-majority country.
In his inauguration speech on January 20, Obama vowed to seek a "new way forward" with the Muslim world "based on mutual interest and respect," after eight rocky years under Bush.
Green said it is "a safe bet" Obama will visit Indonesia -- where he spent part of his childhood and where he is popular -- when he visits Asia later this year.
Clinton is due to visit Japan February 16-18, Indonesia from February 18-19, South Korea February 19-20, and China February 20-22.
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