Clinton has some fences to mend

By Eli Clifton
Asia Times
January 14, 2010

WASHINGTON - United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is traveling in the South Pacific this week to strengthen longtime US alliances with Australia, improve relations with New Zealand and bring some forward momentum to US-Japanese negotiations over the controversial relocation of the US air station in Okinawa.

While not traveling to China and Japan, as US President Barack Obama did in November, Clinton's trip will likely be dominated by the role of an increasingly powerful China in the Pacific, tensions in the US-Japanese relationship and vocal Chinese objections to the US decision last week to sell nearly US$1 billion in anti-missile batteries and missiles to Taiwan.

Kicking off the nine-day trip from Honolulu, Hawaii, Clinton on Tuesday met with Japanese Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada in meetings intended to reduce tensions over the currently stalled agreement to realign US forces based at Futenma, a US Marine Corps air station on Okinawa.

"I don't think we're looking at a breakthrough [in the meetings between Clinton and Okada]. What we're looking at is a feverish attempt to look beyond Futenma," Ralph Cossa, president of the Pacific Forum at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told Inter Press Service. "Whether they'll be successful is another question."

Prior to taking office in September 2009, Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama's election platform included a call for re-examining Japan's ties with the US with a particular focus on the 50,000 US military personnel based in Japan.

"Hatoyama wants to show that he is looking out for Japan's interests and wants a more 'equal' relationship but he's not going to win votes by undermining US-Japan relations. He is trying to walk a tough line to be seen as standing up for 'greater equality' but not undermining the [US-Japan] relationship," said Cossa.

Clinton has also been careful in the lead-up to the meetings to play up the strength of the US-Japan alliance and emphasize the policy arenas in which the US and Japan have cooperated.

"We've had a very positive set of interactions with the new Japanese leadership," Clinton told reporters on Monday. "We're grateful that they are playing such a leading role in Afghanistan. Their commitment, a very large trust fund, $5 billion, dwarfs anything that any other country has done."

Indeed, Japan has played a noticeable role in coordinating donor meetings for the reconstruction of Afghanistan and has worked with the US and other allies in anti-piracy operations in the Indian Ocean.

After delivering a speech in Honolulu on the US's Asia-Pacific policy, Clinton will continue to Papua New Guinea to call attention to environmental protection issues and women's rights.

She will then travel to New Zealand and Australia, where the war in Afghanistan, nuclear and trade issues, China's rising influence in the Pacific and Iran's nuclear program will likely be on the agenda. New Zealand Prime Minister John Key and Clinton on Friday will have a meeting predicted to cement relations between their two countries.

Key's center-right government, which took power in 2008, is widely seen as more friendly to the US than the Labor Party leaders who held office for the previous nine years and maintained more strained relations with Washington.

New Zealand is also likely to lobby Clinton to give momentum to the "Transpacific Partnership" free-trade pact, which would include the US, New Zealand, Vietnam, Brunei, Australia, Singapore, Chile and Peru.

On Sunday, Clinton and US Defense Secretary Robert Gates will meet with Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and their Australian counterparts.

These meetings will likely focus on the war in Afghanistan, and Clinton and Gates are expected to lobby for the Australians to increase their commitment of 1,500 troops during the US "surge" of an additional deployment of 30,000 troops in Afghanistan.

While China is not on Clinton's itinerary, the effects of recent US arms sales to Taiwan will loom over the trip. The Obama administration has been quick to point out that the deal did not include F-16 fighter jets or Blackhawk helicopters, a decision that the White House said was a concession to Beijing's objections to the arms deal.

China has voiced concern over the US decision to go through with the $1 billion arms deal negotiated under the George W Bush administration as well as Obama's decision to meet with exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama.

On Monday, Clinton, eager to dispel the notion that US-China relations are deteriorating, told reporters that the US and China had a "mature relationship" and that "it doesn't go off the rails when we have differences of opinion".

On Obama's upcoming meeting with the Dalai Lama, Clinton said, "We have a difference of perspective on the role and ambitions of the Dalai Lama, which we've been very public about."