U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell is en route to Asia for an eight-nation ten-day tour beginning with stops in India and Pakistan. He'll try to promote a dialogue between the two South Asian powers after a confrontation over Kashmir in May that nearly led to war.
It is Mr. Powell's third mission to South Asia in less than a year, reflecting the growing importance of the region in the U.S. anti-terrorism fight and increased concern in Washington about the rivalry between the two South Asian nuclear powers.
The Bush administration sent Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage to India and Pakistan after the latest flare-up in Kashmir tensions in May.
The U.S. crisis diplomacy, including countless telephone appeals to leaders of both countries by Mr. Powell, yielded a pledge from Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf to halt infiltration of Muslim militants across the "line-of-control" into Indian Kashmir, and Indian steps to reduce its military buildup in the border region.
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher says Mr. Powell's objective on his brief set of meetings in New Delhi and Islamabad will be to prod both sides to fulfill their previous commitments and to try to arrange direct talks between them over Kashmir.
"President Musharraf's committed to stop the infiltration along the line-of-control. He's committed to making that permanent," Mr. Boucher said. "On the other side, India has committed itself to a series of steps to help ease the tensions. The goal of our meetings is to continue those steps, to see that they carry out their commitments, to work with them as they carry out their commitments, work with them as they take further steps to ease the tension, and work with them as they seek a dialogue where they can start addressing all these issues including Kashmir."
U.S. officials say the infiltration of Muslim militants across the dividing line has declined significantly since June, and that Secretary Powell will press Mr. Musharraf to shut down their training camps as well.
They say he will seek additional military confidence-building steps from India, which in recent weeks has been allowed some troops posted along the border to go on leave, and sent navy ships deployed near Pakistan back to port.
After concluding the South Asia talks, Mr. Powell heads to Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei, Indonesia and the Philippines next week in a fast-paced mission aimed at bolstering support for the U.S. war on terrorism.
He'll spent less than 24 hours in each of those countries with the exception of Brunei, where he'll join in a two-day regional forum hosted by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, ASEAN.
Mr. Powell will have bilateral meetings on the sidelines of the ASEAN conference and there is press speculation the list might include North Korea's foreign minister.
In a pre-departure interview with Asian journalists, the text of which released Friday, Mr. Powell welcomed, as a "positive development," this week's expression of regret by North Korea over its naval clash with South Korea in late June.
Mr. Powell said the Bush administration remains interested in dialogue with North Korea even though it shelved plans to sent an envoy to Pyongyang in the wake of the naval incident.
He said he expects the Korean situation to be a subject of "considerable discussion" in Brunei, and under questioning he said he has an "open mind" about meeting his North Korean counterpart, though adding that nothing has been decided, "one way or the other."