Clinton Elevates Asia Among Foreign Policy Priorities

Her recent trip signals that the new administration sees the world differently than its predecessors.

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Her predecessors generally took their maiden voyages eastward to the usual diplomatic touchstones, the capitals of Europe and the Middle East. By flying instead to Asia last week on her inaugural overseas trip as the top U.S. diplomat, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton sent a signal that the Obama administration views relationships across the Pacific as "indispensable to addressing the challenges and seizing the opportunities of the 21st century."

This message was reinforced at her first stop, Tokyo, where she invited Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso to be the first foreign leader hosted by President Obama at the White House, a meeting planned for this Tuesday. Clinton's early Asia focus set the Obama foreign policy apart from that of his predecessor. George Bush assigned pre-eminence to the Iraq struggle and the war on terrorism. And Asia, despite its vast scale, economic clout, and role in key security issues, held a secondary position in the Bush administration's foreign policy pecking order. Asia Society President Vishakha Desai sees Clinton's trip as signaling "a major shift in strategy."

Clinton looked comfortable in her various roles, which included meeting with senior officials, having tea with Japan's empress, and chatting with children from the Indonesian school that a young Barack Obama had attended. She repeatedly touched on themes of consultation, mutual respect, and developing relationships, an approach that tends to produce few immediate results but builds goodwill with Asian officials. She also used the trip to highlight Obama's interest in the development of modern energy technologies and measures to slow global climate change.

Four countries were on her itinerary. The Japan stop aimed at strengthening ties to a long-standing ally and key economic partner, and it provided a chance to discuss steps to revive flagging North Korean denuclearization talks. She met with family members of Japanese abducted in the 1970s and 1980s by North Korean agents, a highly emotional issue in Japan. Next was Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim country. Obama has said he wants to improve relations between the U.S. government and Muslim publics worldwide.

Her third destination, South Korea, is another U.S. military ally and major trading partner. The agenda for the Seoul talks was topped again by North Korea. Clinton said that the Obama administration is willing to normalize relations with the North, negotiate a peace treaty to replace the truce, and contribute to meeting the North's energy needs if Pyongyang is "genuinely prepared to completely and verifiably eliminate" its nuclear weapons program.

In some ways, she left the most important, at least in strategic terms, for last: Beijing. Shortly before leaving for Asia, she portrayed China's rise as potentially beneficial to the United States and urged broadening the U.S.-Chinese agenda, including increased cooperation on climate change issues. But the state of the global economy is the most pressing concern of the moment, with Washington counting on Beijing to stimulate its economic activity to help counter the global slump.