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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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China policy was largely turned over to former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson in the second Bush term, he notes. Now, Clinton is signaling Obama's Treasury secretary, Timothy Geithner, "like a lion putting its paw right on the bone," he says. By heading right out to Beijing, "she's saying, like that lion, 'It's mine. Are you going to do something about it?' "

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Clinton will be watched for how she broaches with Beijing her intention to broaden Sino-American relations. Some economists note the record trade deficit with China – $266 billion in 2008 – and insist that China must be pressured on its monetary policy.

In a new report, the Asia Society calls for climate change to become the center of US-China relations, while some human rights activists want democratization, religious freedom, or the impact of China-Sudan relations on Darfur to top Clinton's priorities.

But some big-picture security experts say the secretary of State has to be pragmatic, especially in the midst of a global financial crisis and when the US needs Beijing's cooperation on issues like Iran and North Korea.

"If Clinton thinks, 'I'm going to push the democracy agenda on China no matter what,' she's going to get a quick education," says Thomas P.M. Barnett, author of the recent book "Great Powers: America and the World After Bush." China continues to hold 70 percent of its foreign reserves in dollars, he says, but if miffed Chinese leaders "shift just 10 percent of what they hold to another currency, believe me, we are going to notice."

Indeed, observers like Green of CSIS predict that Clinton will greet her Asian hosts "with a large dose of humility" – in part because she will arrive representing an economically weakened and chastened America. "This is not like the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis, when the US was up and Asia was down," he says. "This time, the crisis started in the US market, and I think it's appropriate for our officials – and I think this is the tone the secretary will set – to make it clear we have problems we have to fix."

Yet within that spirit of humility, Fullilove sees Clinton reminding Chinese leaders of what he calls "the Spider-Man dictum – with great power comes great responsibility." An American goal initiated by the Bush administration to peacefully manage China's rise to superpower will also be pursued by President Obama, whom Fullilove describes as more of a pragmatist than Bush, with none of the former president's "visceral mistrust of nondemocracies."

The challenge for Obama and his secretary of State, these Asia experts say, will be working toward a China exercising its global-power responsibilities without making US allies in the region nervous.