Hillary Clinton arrives Monday in Japan, the first of four stops in Asia - her first official foreign travel as secretary of state. She will also visit South Korea, Indonesia and China to build partnerships she says will transcend geographic and political boundaries. The visit comes as North Korea is suspected of preparing to conduct a missile launch and Japan announces that its economy shrank in the fourth quarter of last year.
Secretary Clinton's visit to Japan comes on the heels of Tokyo's announcement that Asia's leading economy shrank by more than three percent in the last three months of 2008, as exports and factory output fell. It was the third straight quarterly decline in Japan's gross domestic product and the economy's worst quarterly performance in 35 years.
Last week, Secretary Clinton told an audience at the Asia Society in New York that she will use what she called "smart power" diplomacy - seeking stronger bilateral, regional and global cooperation to deal with world issues like the economic crisis.
"The global financial crisis requires every nation to look inward for solutions. But none of us can afford to become so introspective that we overlook the critical role that international partnerships must play in stabilizing the world's economy and putting all of us back on the path to prosperity," she said. "And we cannot respond with a race to erect trade and other barriers; we must remain committed to a system of open and fair trade."
Shortly after Clinton departed for Asia, North Korea's official news agency suggested that the country is preparing a missile launch, insisting that the communist state has a right to pursue "space development". U.S. and South Korean officials say they believe Pyongyang is preparing to test its long-range Taepodong-2 ballistic missile.
Clinton has called North Korea's nuclear program Northeast Asia's most acute challenge. She says President Barack Obama is committed to working through the six-party talks, involving the United States, China, Russia, Japan and North and South Korea, and that her trip is intended to move the process forward. Last week at the Asia Society, she urged Pyongyang to refrain from what she called "any provocative action" and "unhelpful rhetoric".
"The North Korean government has committed to abandoning all nuclear weapons and to return at an early date to the Treaty on Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. We continue to hold them to those commitments," Clinton said. "If North Korea is genuinely prepared to completely and verifiably eliminate their nuclear weapons program, the Obama administration will be willing to normalize bilateral relations, replace the [Korean] Peninsula's long-standing armistice agreements with a permanent peace treaty, and assist in meeting the energy and other economic needs of the North Korean people."
While in Japan, Clinton is expected to meet with family members of Japanese citizens who have been abducted by North Korea. Pyongyang has admitted to kidnapping at least 13 Japanese nationals during the 1970's and 1980's to train as spies. North Korea has allowed five to return home in recent years and has said the others have died. But Japan says more people were abducted and that it wants information about their fate.
Previous U.S. administrations, in their first diplomatic forays, have tended to focus on Europe and the Middle East. Hillary Clinton's first official trip takes her to Japan, South Korea, Indonesia and China where she says she hopes to signal the United States needs strong partners across the Pacific Ocean. The United States, she says, is both a transatlantic as well as transpacific power. She says each stop represents partners who, in her words, are "indispensable to America's security and prosperity".