UNTIL this week only one American secretary of state had made his first foreign trip to Asia: Dean Rusk, in 1961. So Hillary Clinton’s decision to start her travels with a tour to Tokyo, Jakarta, Beijing and Seoul surprised even her hosts. The message seems to be that war elsewhere and economic turmoil may be the current preoccupations, but America’s future environment will be shaped in Asia.
Besides, it is always good to go where you are welcome. It is not simply that President Barack Obama’s four childhood years in Indonesia make him a hero there; nor that learners of English have cleaned out the Tokyo bookshops of volumes of his speeches. Rather, despite the damage George Bush did to America’s prestige, in East Asia it remains high.
According to a recent survey of Japan, South Korea, Indonesia, China and Vietnam by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, America’s “soft” power—ie, its ability to influence others through attraction rather than coercion—has actually grown. Everywhere, America ranked ahead of China in terms of soft power, measured as a mix of political, economic and cultural appeal. It ranked first in Japan, South Korea and China. In Indonesia and Vietnam it took second place, to Japan. That China limped in third overall clearly came as a surprise to the Chicago Council, which had roped in a noted China hand, David Shambaugh, to write up the findings.
Yet East Asia was somewhat neglected under Mr Bush, especially in the second term. The cause was partly bureaucratic. After it was launched in 2006, the “strategic economic dialogue” with China came to dominate the bilateral relationship at the expense of broader issues such as security and human rights. At times, it seemed relations were the sole preserve of the former treasury secretary, Hank Paulson.
As for the State Department, its East Asia agenda was consumed by North Korea, which exploded a nuclear device in October 2006. Mr Bush’s assistant secretary of state for the region, Christopher Hill (who accompanied Mrs Clinton), focused on little else. This irked Japan. Not only did the United States appear to be neglecting its biggest Asian ally. Japanese and South Korean warnings against over-hasty deals with North Korea were also ignored.
America took the North off its blacklist of state sponsors of terror last autumn, in return for an oral promise about verification procedures for disabling facilities at its nuclear reactor. The North has since all but disowned the promise at the six-party talks aimed at getting it to disarm. Meanwhile, progress on tackling suspected uranium enrichment, nuclear proliferation and the North’s existing handful of plutonium weapons remains as elusive as ever.
Now North Korea has grown shrill towards South Korea, which under President Lee Myung-bak does not want to give unconditional aid. The North may try to provoke a naval skirmish. Preparations for a long-range missile test appear under way, and another nuclear test cannot be ruled out. North Korea may yet dominate America’s East Asia policy and attempt to drive wedges between America and its friends, as it did under Mr Bush.
In Japan Mrs Clinton had to mend a fence she broke herself. Laying out her stall in Foreign Affairs, a wonkish journal, in late 2007, she almost forgot Japan in her stress on China. There is no surer way to feed Japanese insecurities. Yet in Tokyo she hailed the security alliance with Japan as a cornerstone of American foreign policy. And she invited the prime minister, Taro Aso, to be the first foreign leader to meet Mr Obama, on February 24th (assuming he clings to office that long). Any new bonhomie, however, will be tested when America asks a foot-dragging Japan for more help abroad—for instance, by flying supplies into Afghanistan, now that overland routes from Pakistan are repeatedly subject to Taliban attacks.
Mrs Clinton is visiting Indonesia partly as a proxy for re-engaging with South-East Asia as a whole: the region badly wants continued American engagement as a counterbalance to China’s growing military might. But Indonesia also matters as a huge Muslim nation, where, as the foreign minister, Hassan Wirajuda, put it, “Islam and modernity can go hand-in-hand.”
China, for its part, wants reassurance that not much will change, at a time of rising protectionist pressure in America. It was relieved not to have been demonised during the presidential campaign, and Mrs Clinton’s talk of wishing it to be committed to international norms echoes the language of the Bush administration. China Daily, an official newspaper, has even expressed the hope that military exchanges, suspended last year over American arms sales to Taiwan, might be resumed. But Mrs Clinton’s suggestion that dialogue has been too centred on the economic at the expense of the strategic gives Chinese policymakers the jitters.
In general, Mrs Clinton has appeared to be listening more than speaking. Still, it is possible that the biggest change in America’s Asian diplomacy will be to put global warming near the heart of it. On the trip Mrs Clinton brought her special envoy on climate change, Todd Stern. China, the United States and Indonesia (because of deforestation) are the world’s biggest emitters of greenhouse gases. Japan has perhaps the best clean technology. China has yet to show any readiness to make specific commitments to cut carbon emissions. But if offered technological and other bribes, it might prefer not to be seen as an obstacle to the global agreement on carbon reductions hoped for late 2009. That would be a coup for Mrs Clinton’s Asian diplomacy, though a distant goal for now.