Home > News and politics > Clinton’s Asia Trip: Engaging U.S. Geopolitics, Reshaping Her Family’s Legacy

Clinton’s Asia Trip: Engaging U.S. Geopolitics, Reshaping Her Family’s Legacy

Clinton’s Asia Trip: Engaging U.S. Geopolitics, Reshaping Her Family’s Legacy

Sam Stein, stein@huffingtonpost.com | HuffPost Reporting From DC
February 17, 2009 10:28 AM

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s week long trip to Asia, her first venture abroad in her current post, is rife with opportunities, obstacles, and some key challenges borne of her family’s personal legacy.

There is broad consensus within foreign policy circles that the Asia rim presents, perhaps, the most complex challenges for the Obama administration, though one with obvious rewards. By sending Clinton to the region for her first assignment, the President is recognizing the elevated geopolitical stature of that part of the world.

But Asia is far from monolithic. And if Clinton is to be successful, experts say, she will have to show the deft touch of a seasoned diplomat — massaging the national egos of certain countries while not offending others, repairing the damages from the Bush and even Bill Clinton years while building on their successes — despite having been at Foggy Bottom for mere weeks.

"Because she is going there so early it creates amazing expectations. So you have to be wary and make sure that you manage those expectations," said Vishakha Desai, President of Asia Society. "I do think this trip is extremely significant. For the first time a Secretary of State of the United States is going to Asia as opposed to Europe and the Middle East… Finally American leaders have woken up to the fact that the 21st century is really about the rise of Asia."

Each county on Clinton’s trip represents its own sets of challenges. It was not a coincidence that the first stop was in Japan, a nation in the midst of incredible economic and political turmoil but one whose relationship with the U.S. is, as Clinton noted on Monday, "vitally important." The country is slated to have elections sometime before September. And it could result in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party losing power for one of the few times since WWII.

But the diplomatic hurdles Clinton faces are as much personal as political. Japan still reels from the fact that during an eight-day trip in 1998, President Bill Clinton went to China without stopping in Tokyo first. The slight, and resulting outrage and inferiority complex, has impacted U.S. relations for years, becoming known as the "Japan-passing."

"It played a huge role in Japanese consciousness and politics," said one Japan expert in Democratic foreign policy circles. "And it is definitely not forgotten."

Nor is Hillary Clinton’s November 2007 essay in Foreign Affairs, titled "Security and Opportunity for the Twenty-first Century," in which Japan was not mentioned.

"This reignited all of these fears and paranoia among the Japanese that Democrats in general and the Clintons in particular do not like Japan," according to this expert.

And yet, China itself poses as difficult a diplomatic terrain as its island neighbor to the east. An economic behemoth and veto-wielding member of the UN Security Council, it represents, in many ways, the linchpin to mitigating some of the world’s thorniest conflicts. President Clinton courted the ruling and business classes of the country, as have presidents before and after. But the results have been varying. China is mistrusted and vilified by factions in the United States for its human rights and labor practices.

And, lest one forget, during the Democratic primary, it was then-Senator Hillary Clinton who called on George Bush to boycott the Opening Ceremonies of the Olympic Games in Beijing for the Chinese government’s failure to help end the violence in Darfur.

"It was not a smart move, even for a presidential candidate," said Steve Clemons, Director of the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation. "We need China for virtually everything today — mostly to get Chinese economic leadership to stunt the export-led growth machine and trigger domestic consumption, which China doesn’t want to do."

The complexities of Asian diplomacy don’t end there. A nuclear-armed North Korea looms over every move Clinton makes and word she utters. The Secretary of State, for instance, will be going to Seoul as a now-customary nod to the strategic partnership between the U.S. and South Korea. She also will meet with the families of Japanese nationals abducted by North Korea agents — which, as during the six-party talks, will be interpreted as a shot across the bow of sorts at Pyongyang.

Finally, there is Clinton’s decision to make Indonesia, and not Thailand, her sole stop in Southeast Asia. Thailand has long been considered the key strategic U.S. partner in the region, but its leaders have increasingly become anti-democratic. The country now finds itself on the cusp of a revolution or coup. Clinton’s slighting of Thailand is significant, but her stop in Indonesia, which recently completed a democratic transition of power, may be the bigger story.

"It is not simply that it is the largest Muslim country in the world," said Desal, "but I think the other reason is that, right now, when it comes to trade and environmental issues, there are actually a group of countries that are discussing these issues that are part of G20 and Indonesia is part of G20."

In short: Clinton’s first trip is extremely ambitious but filled with hurdles — a tour that President Obama could have taken himself had his agenda not been packed with domestic economic priorities. Rather than heading to a hot-spot like Iraq or Pakistan, Clinton has chosen to establish her geopolitical bonafides, acknowledging Asia’s increasing economic and political power, as well as its religious and democratic symbolism. And through her entire trip runs a thread of the her family’s prior history in the region, which serves as a challenge in some regards, but a blessing in others:

"We mustn’t forget that she actually took some of the early trips to Asia as First Lady," said Desal. "And if anything when she went to India and China she is the one who came back to talk about these countries as important… When Bill Clinton went to those country absolutely people loved him. But she was also treated as a rock star herself."

From : http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/02/17/clintons-asia-trip-engagi_n_167332.html

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