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Clinton's first destination as secretary of State: a rising Asia

She'll talk with China and three other nations about climate change, the financial crisis, and more.

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A new secretary of State is always watched for the signals she or he sends with a first overseas trip, and that is especially true when the message-sending is also on behalf of a new president. The usual choice of destination is Europe or the Middle East – but those places were already spoken for. President Obama had already named special envoys to the Middle East and to Afghanistan and Pakistan, while Vice President Joseph Biden was tapped to address the new administration's relations with Europe at a major security conference in Germany last week.

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But beyond those factors was Clinton's sense that a number of the administration's top priorities will require dialogue and strong cooperation with Asia, State Department officials and Asia analysts say.

The problem of nuclear proliferation, which Mr. Obama emphasized during his campaign, will require a quick focus on North Korea and an effort to restart stalemated international talks aimed at dismantling Pyongyang's nuclear program. North Korea pronounced itself a nuclear power during the second Bush term and has recently stepped up its belligerent rhetoric and actions despite concessions from the Bush administration.

But Clinton is not expected to signal any overtures to Pyongyang. The issue, in fact, was pointedly absent from the State Department's announcement of her Asia trip. She instead will focus on hearing out and coordinating the positions of the capitals she will visit, regional analysts say.

"It would be extremely destabilizing and unnerving for our allies if the major headline in North Korea out of this trip was that the first priority is engaging North Korea and not sewing up our relationship with our allies and making sure we're on the same page," says Mr. Green, who was among several experts to brief Clinton before the trip.

Contemplating the "Why Asia?" question for a destination, some regional experts say Clinton had both strategic and tactical motivations. "The Obama administration is fully aware of the global shift in power eastwards," says Michael Fullilove, director of global issues at the Lowy Institute for International Policy in Sydney, Australia.

He also sees Clinton making a quick "claim" on the China file. It will be "the most important bilateral relationship of the US in the coming decades," says Mr. Fullilove, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington.