Weeks after North Korea pulled out of six-nation talks and claimed it has nuclear weapons, the new US top diplomat is coming to town.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice arrives Friday in Tokyo at a time when many Asia experts describe an unusual rise in political tensions, old animosities, and nationalism in this part of the world - despite good economic performances by China, South Korea, and Japan. They even point to a sense of "drift" in US-Asian relations.
A chief difficulty for the traveling US chief diplomat, though one kept at low profile, is how to handle North Korean leader Kim Jong Il. Whether Secretary Rice can muster the leverage and skill to restart the moribund six-party talks on Korea is unclear, as indeed is the viability of the US position, some experts say. Washington insists that North Korea must agree to completely dismantle its weapons as a starting position.
Since the Kim regime declared it has nuclear weapons, Rice has steadily argued that North Korea is further isolating itself, and that the US has "agreement with five partners," as she states.
Yet when the new Secretary visits Seoul and Beijing on Saturday and Sunday, she may find the US position is also isolated. Following Kim's claim of nuclear status, neither South Korea nor China has taken any visible punitive steps against the regime, which is considered a major human rights violator. Instead, South Korean Foreign Minister Ban Ki Moon this week urged the US to seek more "creative" measures to break the impasse. China's foreign minister days ago stated he doubts that US intelligence on North Korea's weapons of mass destruction is accurate.
"If Kim goes for nuclear weapons he can begin to reduce his costly need for a huge army," says Alexandre Mansourov of the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Honolulu. "I'm not convinced he's coming back to the six-party talks. The North likes having nuclear credentials."
As Rice arrives, regional contretemps are so heated that it appears little effort has gone into traditional efforts to "create an atmosphere" for her visit.
In the past week, Japan has informally claimed several small islands that South Korea now occupies. This was supposed to be a "year of friendship" between Korea and Japan. Yet this week, South Korean F-16 fighter jets cruised over the tiny Pacific outcroppings, which Japan calls Takeshima, and Korea called Tokdo.
Of course, the bigger island dispute in the region is over Taiwan. On Monday, China's National People's Congress passed an antisecession bill that offers a legal rationale for the takeover of Taiwan. Thursday, Taiwan's president Chen Shui-bian called for mass protests.
The ongoing tensions over Taiwan prompted the US and Japan to declare last month a shared mutual security goal "to encourage the peaceful resolution of issues concerning the Taiwan Strait through dialogue." China criticized the joint statement as meddling in its internal affairs.
At the time, Japan also signed a military agreement with the US that will increasingly make Japan the center of the American presence in Asia.
Beijing has watched closely Tokyo's gradual moves away from a policy of strict pacificism. In December, for the first time ever, Japan formally named China as an object of concern over the mainland's military buildup.
Rice was in north Asia last summer, visiting all three nations as national security adviser. Now she returns as the top diplomat, and her sequence of visits follows what has been protocol in the Bush administration: first a visit to old ally Japan, then Korea, then China. She will wrap up her tour on Monday.
At one level, Rice, as main representative of the world's No. 1 power, is expected to experience the usual scramble by various parties to develop close personal ties.
In an apparent gesture of goodwill ahead of Rice's visit, China Thursday freed one of its highest-profile political prisoners. Rebiya Kadeer, an ethnic Uighur, was released after spending five years in prison for "illegally providing state intelligence abroad" after she sent newspaper clippings to her husband in the US.
Yet underneath the good manners and smiles, the interior dialogue about the US in the various Asian capitals is often uncertain or puzzled. The perception here is that Iraq and the Middle East take priority over Pacific issues for the Americans. The US involvement in Iraq, now entering its third year amid continuing violence and the departure of allies like Italy, has led to an undercurrent of concern here about the US ability to stay engaged in Asia and has dented America's overall image of strength.
"The Americans don't seem to recognize the drift that is continuing in Asia," says a senior US official who requested anonymity. "From Washington, it appears things are fine. In Asia, the perspective is different. I wonder if anyone on this trip will bluntly tell Condi that the Korea policy isn't working."
The Bush administration is relying heavily on Beijing to bring North Korea back to the negotiating table. Both China and South Korea, the two countries bordering North Korea, publicly advocate a "nuclear free peninsula." However, differences remain with the US over how to achieve that objective.
Rice's first trip as Secretary of State was to Europe last month. Unlike European nations - which after World War II developed a system of interlinking organizations, treaties, and common understandings - Asia developed no such system, experts point out. There is no Asian NATO or Asian economic community to provide checks and balances and mediate differences as in Europe. There have been no state visits between China and Japan, for example, since Jiang Zemin visited Tokyo in 1998.
• Wire material was used in this report.