Hillary Clinton began her first overseas trip to Asia this week as the 67th secretary of state of the United States. The weeklong trip that started Monday includes stops in Japan, Indonesia, South Korea and China.
Four fundamental issues are expected to dominate the visit:
(1) Reshaping America's image in the Muslim world.
(2) The ongoing global financial crisis.
(3) Global warming.
(4) Tensions surrounding the two Koreas and Pyongyang's nuclear program.
Wednesday's trip to the world's largest Muslim majority-nation was high on the agenda. Indonesia is "an important country for the United States... and the secretary feels it's important that we need to reach out and reach out early to Indonesia," State Department spokesman Robert Wood said prior to the trip.
Mrs. Clinton's predecessor, Condoleezza Rice, began with a trip to Europe and the Middle East. Miss Rice's predecessor, Colin Powell, first visited the Middle East. Madeleine Albright made her inaugural trip to both Europe and East Asia.
Selection of countries in Southeast and East Asia carries a significant message. It is a sign of renewed U.S. interest in strengthening East-West ties. The secretary herself was widely known in that part of the world even before she accepted her current position, and so will need no lengthy introduction.
The visit to Indonesia is a step in President Obama's vision for a new way forward with the Muslim world. After his election on Nov. 4, the first African-American president promised to deliver a major speech in a Muslim capital. Mrs. Clinton's visit to Jakarta beginning today is largely viewed as laying the groundwork for Mr. Obama's visit to that country.
Five days after his Inauguration, Mr. Obama sat down with the Dubai-based Al Arabiya television network and said: "I have Muslim members of my family. I have lived in Muslim countries. My job to the Muslim world is to communicate that the Americans are not your enemy."
Not only is it because of Indonesia being the largest Muslim-majority nation, but President Obama also has personal connections. He lived in the country and attended schools from age 6 to 10 when his mother remarried to an Indonesian. When he was inaugurated, Mr. Obama's former classmates gathered at his old school to celebrate the 44th president, whom they called "Barry."
Though the United States and Japan fiercely fought during World War II, their bilateral relationship is now tremendously cordial. Japan is a good regional ally of the United States both economically and in the fight against terrorism. Japan also plays an important role in the six-party talks on the North Korean nuclear program.
South Korea is a long-term ally of the United States in the region. Like Japan, South Korea is a good partner of the United States economically and politically. The country is also a key player in the North Korean nuclear talks.
Japan and South Korea were selected for the chief diplomat's maiden trip to reaffirm their friendship with the United States and to continue exploring areas where these countries and America can better work together. Besides the global financial crisis, Mrs. Clinton was expected to discuss the new U.S. strategy in Afghanistan with both countries.
The Sino-U.S. relationship is dominated by economic issues, and has visibly been closer in recent years. China being the third-largest economy of the world has made it difficult for the United States to ignore China's growing influence in the region and around the world. Mrs. Clinton will visit China later this week.
The two opposing capitalist and communist ideologies have differing interests and differing approaches on many of the international conflicts. These differences have often surfaced in the U.N. Security Council. Despite the political differences, China and the United States have tried to resolve the North Korean nuclear problem, among other issues.
The Obama administration is apparently interested in moving beyond economic talks with China. During her confirmation hearing, Mrs. Clinton envisioned a new "comprehensive" China policy that will incorporate a broad range of issues rather than just the economy. During her visit later Friday, the two countries are expected to discuss a wide range of issues, including the global economic crisis, climate change and the North Korean nuclear program.
Both Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton emphasize the need to use diplomacy and engagement in dealing with the troubled regions of the world. The secretary of state's first overseas visit to Asia will indicate the direction of U.S. foreign policy under the Obama administration. Time will tell how successfully the new administration delivers its message of change.
However unlikely, many analysts and observers wish Mrs. Clinton would bring up some of the region's political problems, including Burma and Tibet.
Nehginpao Kipgen is general secretary of U.S.-based Kuki International Forum.