Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton will leave for Japan, China, South Korea, and Indonesia on February 15. Secretary Clinton’s decision to visit Asia before Europe and the Middle East has given a significant impression to Washington watchers. It is true that Vice President Joseph Biden attended the Munich Security Conference in Germany, and Special Envoy George Mitchell visits Israel and Palestine. In addition, British Foreign Secretary David Miliband and German Foreign Minister Walter Steinmeier visited Secretary Clinton on February 3. Thus, Clinton is free to break the tradition. (“Bucking tradition, Clinton to head for Asia”; CNN News; February 3, 2009: also, see the video)
However, this is more than schedule and procedure. Secretary Clinton has been keeping a close eye on Asia. During the presidential election campaign, Hillary Clinton contributed an article to Foreign Affairs, and said “Our relationship with China will be the most important bilateral relationship in the world in this century.” (“Security and Opportunity for the Twenty-first Century”; Foreign Affairs; November/December 2007) A new liberal think tank closely related to Secretary Clinton, called CNAS (Center for a New American Security), has the Asia Initiative ‘09 project with extensive focus on the Asia-Pacific region. The statement of this project says “As power shifts from the Atlantic to the Pacific, it is paramount for American strategists to articulate a forward-looking strategy to deal with the complexities of the Asia-Pacific region.”
Apparently, Secretary Clinton is more Pacific-oriented than any other Secretary of State in history. She even had a scandal of Chinese donation during the election campaign. In an interview with BBC, Clinton said "Going to Asia signals that the US is not just a transatlantic power but also a transpacific power." (“US 'keen to strengthen Asia ties'”; BBC News; 13 February 2009)
Key issues will be North Korea, Sino-US security affairs, and trade problems associated with the Buy American Clause. President Ralph A. Cossa and Executive Director Brad Glosserman, both at the Pacific Forum of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Honolulu, present brief analyses in their joint article. (“Secretary Clinton's No. 1 mission is to reassure allies”; Japan Times; February 12, 2009)
They visited Tokyo and Seoul recently to find that senior officials in both capitals are worried of the Obama administration’s foreign policy, because Japanese and South Korean leaders have no clear idea what change will happen US strategy in East Asia.
Both Japan and South Korea are concerned with possible softening of US approach to North Korea. The Bush administration sought compromises with the North Korean evil, instead of complete denuclearization. Neither Japan nor South Korea hopes further Chamberlainian diplomacy against the rogue regime in Pyongyang.
The threat of China is another critical issue. While Japan and South Korea do not desire Rumsfeldian hardliner against China, both nations are dismayed with increasing US tilt with China at the expense of the US-Japanese and the US Korean alliance.
Regarding trade, both Japan and South Korea want “reassurance that the Obama administration will remain committed to open markets and free trade.”
Secretary Clinton replied to these concerns in her interview with BBC. Clinton warned North Korea not to take any provocative actions, but stressed offering incentives to abandon nuclear programs. I would say that Secretary Clinton needs to shed anxieties among Japanese and South Korean officials. Also, the abduction issue must not be missed.
Secretary Clinton’s approach to China is another concern. She is right to say that the United States needs to develop cooperation with China to resolve global issues, such as climate change, energy, pandemic prevention, nuclear proliferation, and so forth. However, Clinton thinks too light of Chinese threat. After a long holiday from history during the Clinton administration era, China and Russia have remerged as new threats to our liberal world order. As Robert Kagan argues, the clash between our liberal capitalism and their authoritarian capitalism is a key agenda in global security of this century.
Secretary Clinton will send important messages to understand the Obama administration’s vision to the world. As I mention in this post, there are some worries regarding new administration’s approaches to China and North Korea. It is necessary that Secretary Clinton win trust by key allies in the Pacific area, and impress strong commitment of the United States. Be careful not to be seen America weak!