NEW YORK — The decision to send Hillary Clinton to East Asia on her first extended tour as secretary of state rather than Europe, the Middle East or Latin America confirms that conventional wisdom finally has penetrated the walls of the State Department. Asia is the future — this has been clear since the 1990s — even if the Middle East presents more urgent challenges, and Europe provides a comfortable, genteel zone for new diplomats to cut their teeth.
But Clinton faces a dilemma. While the choice of nations — China, Japan, South Korea and Indonesia — presents her with an opportunity to begin working on a number of long-running issues between the United States and the nations of the Pacific Rim, in each of them (and in most of the rest of the world, too), an old motto may come back to haunt her. She might not hear “it’s the economy stupid” verbatim, but the reality of that phrase can’t be denied. Many, frankly, would prefer to see Timothy Geithner, the treasury secretary, than America’s chief diplomat.
Economics aside, each stop on Clinton's itinerary serves up meaty foreign policy issues:
1) North Korea
In China, Japan and South Korea, reviving the on-again, off-again Six Party Talks with North Korea will be a goal. South Korean reports that the North is planning a major ballistic missile test to welcome the secretary of state must be taken with a grain of salt, but then North Korea is nothing if not unpredictable.
2) The more assertive Japan
Japan’s steady reemergence as a player in world peacekeeping has pleased the United States, and Clinton may encourage this while in Tokyo. Another topic for discussion: the deliberately vague terms of the U.S.-Japan defense treaty should the dispute between Taiwan and China ever turn into a shooting war. If Washington and Tokyo have a hard agreement on that scenario, they’ve kept it quiet. Clinton has a right to ask.
3) Taiwan, human rights and climate change
Talks in Beijing invariably will include a discussion of the Taiwan dispute, which has cooled considerably since a Taiwanese government opposed to outright independence came to power last year. The Bush administration’s decision to approve new arms sales in 2008 to the island, which Beijing regards as a “renegade province,” led China to suspend military-to-military cooperation last year. Getting that reversed on this trip would be a coup, but will conflict with pressure from the American left to talk more forthrightly about human rights, including Tibet’s autonomy. Another prickly priority: winning China’s agreement to caps on its emissions of carbon. China pays lip service to constraining its carbon emissions, but feels (as other developing nations do) that the fault for the problem lay with the West, and that its development should not suffer. But scientists say without caps on Chinese emissions — already the largest single national source in the world — talks about preventing catastrophic environmental effects are futile.
4) The Muslim giant
Clinton’s short stop in Jakarta is meant to emphasize the importance the new administration puts on smoothing relations with a Muslim world so riled by the wars raging in Iraq and Afghanistan, and, more generally, U.S. support for Israel. Washington also has a longstanding but difficult relationship with Indonesia's military. Some see Obama’s boyhood residence in the world’s most populous Muslim nation (237 million strong) as the possible launching pad for a presidential visit that could form part of a larger effort to reach out to moderate Islam.
5) Money talks
But none of these issues holds a candle to the global economic crisis, a disaster largely viewed in Asia as having a “Made in America” tag. As chief cheerleader for globalization, the U.S. must take ownership of some of the ill effects roiling East Asian economies. Clinton, well-aware that money talks as never before in times like these, has put out word through her aides that she would like to see responsibility for the U.S.-China relationship revert to the State Department after its long residence in the pocket of Henry Paulson, the recently departed Bush treasury secretary.
Experts are skeptical.
“Despite the fact that we had some interest emanating from the State Department to sort of seize a little more control of the issue, I think it belongs to Treasury,” says Elizabeth Economy, leader of the Council on Foreign Relations program on Asia studies.
That said, Clinton may prove a powerful tonic for what ails U.S. prestige in the region. Her last trip to Beijing in 1995 — when she gave a strident and well-regarded speech to the United Nations Conference on Women — made her a minor star across Asia. Her 2003 autobiography, "Living History," sold nearly 1 million copies in China in translation, though Beijing’s censors insisted on striking mentions of Chinese human rights advocate Harry Wu and several other references that bothered China’s paper-thin skin.
The Clinton who returns to China as secretary of state finds her personal authority vastly increased since her first visit 14 years ago, even if the nation for which she wields it has been diminished. In 2009, however, Asians will be looking less for guidance on human rights than for signs of basic economic competence from Washington’s new emissary. While America has serious foreign policy business to conduct with each of the countries Clinton visits, the near collapse of the global economic growth that so transformed East Asia over the past two decades is on top of everyone’s agenda — and is number 2, 3 and 4, as well.
Michael Moran is executive editor of CFR.org, the website of the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.
See also: The Hillarys of Asia