The Obama administration may have come out of the blocks with quick action on the Middle East, but Hillary Rodham Clinton's maiden trip as secretary of State to China and three other East Asian countries underscores the importance the new administration places on a rising Asia.
The countries that Secretary Clinton will visit, beginning Monday, reflect the variety in the kinds of relations the United States has in Asia: There are longtime allies Japan and South Korea, bridge-building to the Muslim world represented by Indonesia, and management of China's rise as global power.
That the administration views East Asia as a key participant in addressing the world's most pressing challenges can be seen in the issues Clinton is preparing to take up – everything from the global financial crisis to climate change to nuclear proliferation.
"Historians will judge this administration and our generation on how we managed the rise of the East," says Michael Green, who was senior director of Asian affairs in the Bush National Security Council and is now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington. They will "look back at this [trip] as an important signal to the region."
No secretary of State since Dean Rusk under President Kennedy has made Asia his or her initial destination. But beyond the mere choice of Asia, Clinton has offered few advance hints on what she wants the week-long trip to accomplish.
She has said she is intent upon laying the foundation for a "comprehensive dialogue" with China – one that expands beyond what she describes as an "economic dialogue" under the Bush administration.
The tricky part for Clinton is that she will be seeking to broaden the discussion with a rising global power into areas it is reluctant to address – human rights and greenhouse gases. And this comes at a time when the US needs China's cooperation in the financial crisis.
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.
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.
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?' "
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.