Hillary Clinton headed home from China Sunday at the end of her maiden trip as secretary of State, saying she was leaving "encouraged by the possibilities of what a stronger relationship can mean for the Chinese and American people."
A whirlwind Asian tour that took her to Japan, Indonesia, and South Korea, as well as Beijing, appeared to have served its purpose "to reintroduce America to the world and to bring a message … about how we are going to work with people to find common ground" as Secretary Clinton put it.
She met a generally favorable reception from her hosts, though some Chinese analysts cautioned that problems will arise as Washington seeks Beijing's agreement on how exactly to tackle the global economic crisis and climate change, the two top items on Clinton's agenda.
During a trip clearly focused on China, Clinton also visited two key allies in the region.
In Tokyo, her first stop, she made "an effort to assuage Japanese fears … that Obama would revive trade pressure and ignore Japan in favor of China" says Ellis Krauss, an expert in Japanese politics at the University of California in San Diego.
In Seoul, the secretary of State made a pointed show of support for South Korea as North Korea raises the level of invective against its neighbor, and apparently prepares to test a long-range missile.
Clinton also visited Indonesia, paying attention to the largest Muslim country in the world and a fledgling democracy in a part of the globe where some felt that the last US administration had not been active enough.
The trip marked the first time in more than 50 years that a new US secretary of State has made Asia her first destination.
Top stop: Beijing
"The Obama administration feels that Bush followed too narrow and parsimonious an agenda with Asia" says Kenneth Lieberthal, a prominent China expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "They intend to engage Asia."
Clinton's key stop, however, was inBeijing, where she signaled President Obama's desire to deepen a relationship that has already been progressing smoothly for several years.
As the largest developing and developed nations, Clinton said, "it is essential that China and the United States have a positive and cooperative relationship" in tackling grave global problems.
Clinton said there was an "acute and immediate need" for the two countries to address the world economic crisis together, "designing and implementing a coordinated global response."
She also repeatedly stressed her hope that China and the United States, the two largest emitters of carbon dioxide, would cooperate in forging a common approach to climate change, an issue scarcely addressed before in bilateral talks.
Upgrading the 'strategic dialogue'
To deal with such questions, and with security issues such as North Korea's and Iran's nuclear capacities, Clinton and her Chinese counterpart Yan Jiechi said they were planning to upgrade the "strategic dialogue" that until now has focused on economics, to include political questions.
Beijing would like the dialogue to involve Chinese premier Wen Jiabao, according to Chinese sources familiar with the plan.
"I am not sure the substance of the relationship will be improved," he warns, since the Obama administration has shown no signs of being willing to suspend arms sales to Taiwan, nor to end the ban on selling arms and dual-use high technology to Beijing, issues that irk the Chinese government.
In practice, too, Professor Yan points out, it may be difficult for Beijing to agree to the sort of carbon emission caps that Washington will press for at a summit later this year in Copenhagen to negotiate a new treaty that will replace the Kyoto Protocol.
Playing down human rights
On a visit designed to "lay the basis for future relations," says Yan, it was not surprising that Clinton chose to play down human rights violations in China – a subject on which she spoke so vehemently here 14 years ago that the authorities pulled the plug on live TV coverage of her speech.
This time, she told reporters, "pressing on those issues" such as Tibet, Taiwan, and human rights "can't interfere with the global economic crisis, the global climate change crisis, and the security crises. We have to have a dialogue that leads to an understanding and cooperation on each of those."
Clinton said she had nonetheless raised human rights issues in her talks with Chinese leaders, and would continue to do so.
• Don Kirk in Seoul, South Korea and Takehiko Kambayashi in Tokyo contributed to this article.