WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton added a brief stop in China to her Asia-Pacific tour that begins on Wednesday, a 13-day trip that aims to bolster ties to a region increasingly under China’s shadow.
The State Department described her detour to Hainan Island on Saturday as a simple courtesy to Chinese State Councilor Dai Bingguo, a key figure in managing the strained U.S.-China relationship.
Clinton’s trip begins on Wednesday with a stop in Hawaii to meet Japanese Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara, followed by visits to Vietnam, Cambodia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, New Zealand and Australia.
Built around this week’s East Asia Summit in Hanoi, the tour is designed to demonstrate the U.S. commitment to the region in a climate of China’s at times tense relations with the United States and some of its own neighbors.
Washington and Beijing have clashed this year over the value of China’s currency, U.S. arms sales to Taiwan and U.S. President Barack Obama’s February meeting with the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader.
The two countries have also been at loggerheads over the South China Sea, where China, Taiwan and several Southeast Asian countries have conflicting territorial claims.
Relations between China and Japan, Asia’s two largest economies, became fraught this year over Japan’s 17-day detention of the captain of a Chinese fishing boat that collided with Japanese coast guard ships.
Washington and Beijing are looking for ways to calm tensions ahead of Chinese President Hu Jintao’s visit to the White House in January, a date that gives both sides an interest in resolving problems.
“My sense is that once the Chinese seriously began to focus on the January Hu Jintao visit, everybody decided that you have to have a successful summit and you can’t do that with the edges of your relationship as frayed as they are,” said Jack Pritchard, president of the Korea Economic Institute in Washington.
Pritchard said both sides wanted to steady the relationship and the Chinese “probably are not looking at it (Clinton’s trip) as touching base with all the nations that encircle China.”
In addition to Clinton’s Asia-Pacific swing, Obama will travel next month to India, Indonesia, South Korea and Japan.
“BRASH, BULLYING, SELFISH”
“Chinese diplomacy has been really ham-fisted this year. They have come across as brash, bullying, selfish,” said a U.S. congressional aide who spoke on condition of anonymity.
“It’s been a tough year for them diplomatically and I am told that they have made a decision ... that we need to get back on the bicycle and start pedaling again and the way to do that is to have a successful meeting with Obama.”
Michael Fullilove, an analyst at the Lowy Institute for International Policy in Sydney and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution thinktank in Washington, said Obama had begun to adopt a somewhat more muscular stance toward China.
“To some extent after the Dalai Lama and Taiwan (issues), you saw Obama push back a bit,” Fullilove said. “On the Chinese side, I think they are getting the sense that there is some steel there.”
U.S. officials suggested they were not looking to make waves with China on Clinton’s trip, hoping to use the leverage from Beijing’s desire for a smooth Hu visit to extract some movement from the Chinese without any public spats.
“I think we all understand the stakes involved and the importance for a positive, constructive and, frankly, a relationship with a degree of confidence between the United States and China going forward,” Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell told reporters on Tuesday.
“Most everyone in Asia appreciates the need for a cool-headed, constructive diplomacy between the United States and China in the current environment.”
In Hanoi in July, Clinton signaled new U.S. engagement in the South China Sea issue, emphasizing that Washington believed territorial disputes in the region had global implications because of its key role as a trade and shipping crossroads and potentially rich source of natural resources.
U.S. officials said Clinton expressly set out to challenge China’s position that the South China Sea disputes should be only handled bilaterally and lend U.S. support to Southeast Asian nations wary of one-on-one confrontations with Beijing.
Asked if Clinton was likely to raise the issue on her trip, a senior State Department official replied: “I think we have made the point.”
Editing by John O'Callaghan