Sunday, February 22, 2009

Hillary Clinton in Asia

Hillary Clinton stepped unwittingly into the middle of an economic and political perfect storm when she disembarked at Tokyo’s Haneda Airport on Feb. 16 on the first leg of her four-nation Asian tour, her first tour abroad as secretary of state.

Could she have anticipated that on her first full day in Tokyo, Japan’s finance minister, Soichi Nakagawa, would suddenly resign following a bizarre episode of appearing to be drunk at a meeting of foreign ministers in Rome, an episode that almost pushed her visit off of the front pages?

When she and President Barack Obama decided to extend an invitation to Prime Minister Taro Aso to visit Washington on February 24, the first foreign leader so honored in the new administration, did they realize they were inviting a leader who is the lamest of lame ducks?

At least they had enough knowledge of the fast-moving developments, to seek out a meeting with Ichiro Ozawa, the leader of the opposition Democratic Party of Japan. As each day passes, it becomes increasingly likely that the next time Clinton visits Japan, Ozawa will be prime minister.

Despite the hubbub, Japanese political leaders were extremely pleased that Clinton decided to make Asia the destination of her first tour abroad and Japan the first stop on that tour. The political classes had been obsessing whether the new administration would “tilt” toward China.
Clinton went a long way toward dispelling that by repeating the mantra that the U.S.-Japan relationship was the “cornerstone” of America’s foreign policy. That was offset by an undercurrent of concern about what demands Washington might place on Japan concerning operations in Afghanistan or Pakistan.

The Japanese worry constantly that Washington will inevitably begin to put the priority on nurturing its relationship with China. This is especially true now that Beijing is considered vital to resolving the global financial crisis, while Japan, with its collapsing economy, is looking less and less like a helpmate.

The day she arrived new economic data showing that Japan’s economy contracting by an annualized 12 percent or more, the gloomiest economic prognosis since the worst days of the oil shock in the 1970s.

Yet in China Clinton publicly thanked the Chinese government for buying so much of America’s debt to help keep America’s economy going. “I appreciate the Chinese government’s continuing confidence in U.S. Treasuries.” China’s foreign minister, Yang Jiechi, said only that Beijing makes its investment decisions on safety, value and liquidity.

Aside from Japan, Clinton and the Obama administration looks out on an region that may be suffering economically but is generally politically favorable to the new administration. In Taiwan, which Clinton did not visit nor could she as secretary of state, the return of the Kuomintang to power in last March’s election means that Obama does not have to worry much about conflicts in the Taiwan Strait.

South Korea’s conservative president Lee Myung-bak was more of a political soul mate to former President George W. Bush. But he has been chastened by a rocky first year in office that has seen his approval ratings fall markedly amidst a steady drumbeat of North Koreans provocations and threats to fire a long-range ballistic missile.

Even before departing for Asia, Clinton clearly telegraphed that she wants to resume the six-party talks along the basic lines of the previous administration, namely holding out to North Korea the prospect of recognition, peace and aid in return for disarmament.

During her brief stop in South Korea, she announced that diplomat Stephen Bosworth would lead the U.S. delegation replacing Christopher Hill, who is headed for Baghdad. Bosworth, a former ambassador to both the Philippines and South Korea, was close to liberal former president Kim Dae-jung, and more in tune with the latter’s “sunshine policy” toward the North.

The effort to end North Korea’s nuclear weapons program is complicated by uncertainty over who really calls the shots in Pyongyang since Kim Jong-Il suffered a stroke last summer. Clinton alluded to this problem saying that the succession “creates uncertainty” only to be slapped down by Korean authorities worried that such talk might produce even more belligerent talk from North Korea .

Her visit to China was an occasion to tout her commitment to ameliorating global warming. She toured the Taiyanggong Thermal Power Plant near Beijing, a gas-fired power plant that uses sophisticated turbines made by the General Electric Co, and is said to be twice as fuel efficient as coal fired plants China operates, which have vaulted her to the spot as world’s top polluter.

It is revealing that Clinton skipped the annual ASEAN summit meeting in Thailand this week while flying directly to Indonesia from Japan. It may be that Washington is increasingly looking to Indonesia to become its main anchor in Southeast Asia, replacing Thailand.

Thailand is backsliding into military dominated government, cracking down on free expression, and dragging its feet on terrorism. Its politics are becoming turbulent and unpredictable – witness the closure of Bangkok’s new international airport last year. It has its own impending succession crisis when King Bhumibol, now 81, passes from the scene.

Meanwhile, Indonesia has emerged from decades of single-man rule to become a vibrant democracy. It has an important role to play in the global energy supply and has been remarkably successful in combating radical Islamic terrorism. All this makes Indonesia, with its 200 million, largely Muslim population, worth cultivating.

Of course, it is not lost on anyone that when President Barack Obama inevitably visits the country, the 200 million Indonesians will go into a collective swoon. Never have they witnessed the spectacle of a U.S. president who lived among hem for several years, speaks some Indonesian and likes gado gado.

Everywhere she went in Indonesia, Clinton was asked “when is Obama coming?” No public commitments were made, but it is a good bet that he might visit Indonesia in November, since the annual APEC meeting, to which U.S. presidents usually attend, is being held this year in neighboring Singapore.


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