Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton will seek to bolster U.S. alliances in Asia during a 13-day visit to the region amid growing concerns over China’s regional assertiveness.
Mrs. Clinton will depart Wednesday and make stops in Guam, Hawaii, Vietnam, China, Cambodia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, New Zealand, Australia and American Samoa.
The secretary will stop briefly on China’s Hainan Island in the South China Sea, a resource-rich sea where China in recent months has made expansive territorial claims that have raised concerns in Vietnam and other states. There she will meet Chinese State Counselor Dai Bingguo.
In July, Mrs. Clinton upset China’s government by stating that the Untied States has a national interest in freedom of navigation and supports resolving maritime disputes peacefully.
“We believe it’s very important to have a strong, constructive relationship with China,” Kurt Campbell, assistant secretary of state for East Asia and Pacific affairs, told reporters in previewing Mrs. Clinton’s trip.
“Both sides recognize that. I think most everyone in Asia appreciates the need for a cool-headed, constructive diplomacy between the United States and China in the current environment.”
On meeting allies, Mr. Campbell said: “At every stop, the secretary will highlight both political and economic interactions, a desire to promote U.S. exports and see a more forward engagement on economic matters.”
James Mann, a China specialist at Johns Hopkins’ Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, said that even as new concerns mount in Washington and in the region about Beijing’s increasingly aggressive foreign-policy posture, the economic dimension of the U.S.-Chinese relationship would continue to take center stage for the Obama administration.
“This is not just pre-election,” he said. “They are genuinely concerned about the currency issue.”
Late last month, the House of Representatives approved legislation that would authorize the Commerce Department to impose tariffs on countries with undervalued currencies. Beijing has allowed the renmibi to appreciate a few percentage points recently, though not nearly as much or as quickly as the U.S. and China’s other major trading partners would like.
Maritime disputes with China in recent months also have raised tensions in the region. Beijing has claimed wide areas of international waters in the South China Sea as its exclusive economic zone. And China also clashed with Japan in September over what Tokyo calls the Senkaku Islands, located south of Okinawa and north of Taiwan. China has claimed the islands it calls Diouyu.
John Tkacik, a former State Department China specialist, said Mrs. Clinton “has to be very careful about the symbolism of her trip to Hainan Island.”
“Hainan is, of course, China’s base for its increasingly aggressive naval operations in the South China Sea,” he noted. “The new American commitment to a peaceful South China Sea was greeted with tremendous relief and gratification among all of our Southeast Asian partners. So if Mrs. Clinton goes to Hainan and appears to be backing down from our commitment to our ASEAN partners in the face of Chinese pressure, cajolery and threats, our Asian allies will see it as a sign that even the Americans are afraid of China, and they will just have to resign themselves to suffer what they must.”
The Clinton visit comes as President Hu Jintao is scheduled to travel to the United States in January. President Obama is also planning his own 10-day Asian excursion after the midterm elections that will not include a stop in China.
Mr. Mann said that the flurry of activity signaled a greater shift in focus.
“Every administration takes a look and says, ‘We need to improve our relations with Asia,’ and each one acts as though it’s unprecedented to do so,” he noted.
“Having said all that, they are trying a little harder. When you talk to people [in the administration and the foreign-policy establishment] about where they’d like American foreign policy to head, they talk about a greater emphasis on Asia over the next couple of years.”