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Clinton heads to Asia with 'cool-headed' approach to China

by Staff Writers
Washington (AFP) Oct 26, 2010
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is set to leave here Wednesday for Asia to pursue what an aide called "cool-headed, constructive diplomacy" with China and firmer ties with its Pacific neighbors.

The chief US diplomat's tour, her sixth to Asia since she took office 21 months ago, comes as neighboring countries worry about a more assertive China and as analysts see Washington acting as a counter-balance.

In a grueling two-week tour, aides said, Clinton will fly Wednesday to the US island state of Hawaii before traveling on to Vietnam, China, Cambodia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, New Zealand, Australia and American Samoa.

In Honolulu, Clinton will meet with Japanese Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara -- whose country is embroiled in a spat with China over a disputed island chain in the East China Sea -- and give a speech on policy toward Asia.

Kurt Campbell, the assistant secretary of state for East Asia and Pacific Affairs who will accompany Clinton, said the Hawaii speech will touch on preparations for Chinese President Hu Jintao's trip to Washington next year.

He said the speech will also focus on US preparations for the Group of 20 summit in South Korea and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum in Japan, both of which US President Barack Obama will attend next month.

Flying via the US-administered Pacific island of Guam, Clinton will travel Friday to Vietnam for the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) gathering and Saturday's wider 16-nation East Asia Summit.

She will represent Obama at the gatherings in Hanoi.

In the Vietnamese capital, Campbell said Clinton will meet with her counterparts from the countries of the Lower Mekong Initiative -- Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam -- which share the Lower Mekong River.

Jamie Metzl, executive vice president of the New York-based Asia Society, said China has caused tension in the region with plans for building seven more dams after the four it has already built on the Upper Mekong River.

"The flow of the Mekong is weakening so significantly that salt water from the ocean is moving into the Mekong Delta, which is making it significantly less fertile for rice," Metzl told AFP.

Campbell said Clinton will also meet in Hanoi with South Korean President Lee Myung-Bak, with talks expected to focus on how to revive negotiations for North Korea's nuclear disarmament and political developments in Pyongyang.

Other topics being raised in Vietnam and elsewhere will be efforts to stabilize Afghanistan and Iran's nuclear program, which he said shows how Asian countries increasingly have influence far beyond their borders.

In a previously unscheduled stop, Campbell said, Clinton will then travel Saturday to China's Hainan island talks with Chinese state councilor Dai Bingguo about plans for the G20, APEC and President Hu's visit to Washington.

"We are seriously engaged in a high-level diplomacy to ensure that this trip and the preparations in advance for it go smoothly," Campbell told reporters.

"It's very important to have a strong, constructive relationship with China," Campbell said.

"I think most everyone in Asia appreciates the need for a cool-headed, constructive diplomacy between the United States and China in the current environment," he said.

With the stakes high over oil and other resources, China has taken more assertive stances toward an uninhabited island chain in the East China Sea and toward the Paracel and Spratly archipelagos in the South China Sea.

The uninhabited islands sparked a dispute with Japan and the archipelagos have raised tensions with southeast Asian nations like Vietnam.

"China is growing so rapidly and beginning to flex its muscles in a way that is worrying many members of ASEAN," said Metzl, who has experience working for the State Department and the White House.

"And there's a feeling that the United States needs to play a more active and more openly active role in southeast Asia than has been done in recent years," he said, adding the US can play the role of "balancer."

Clinton will next week visit Malaysia -- which like Cambodia and Vietnam are members of ASEAN -- and then travel to Papua New Guinea for talks on oil and gas profits and climate change.

She will then travel to New Zealand, with stops in Wellington and Christchurch from November 4-6.

Clinton will join US Defense Secretary Robert Gates at the Australia-United States Ministerial (AUSMIN) foreign policy and defense talks in Melbourne on November 8. She then returns to Washington via American Samoa.

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