Clinton leaves for Asia vowing to strengthen US ties

WASHINGTON (AFP) – US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton left for Asia on Sunday, on her maiden mission as the chief US diplomat after pledging to strengthen US ties with the region.

High among her priorities are finding ways to tackle the global economic crisis and climate change as well as prevent nuclear proliferation.

The new US secretary of state’s choice of travel to Japan, where she is expected on Monday, as well as to Indonesia, South Korea and China, reflects the quest for a long-term strategy to deal with the changing dynamic in world economic, political and military power, analysts say.

Her predecessors usually traveled first to Europe or the Middle East.

Two days ahead of her departure, Clinton said she was “ready to work with leaders in Asia to resolve the economic crisis” and “strengthen our historic partnerships and alliances.”

In her first foreign policy speech delivered before the New York-based Asia Society, Clinton said she also is “ready to help prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons in Asia.”

Clinton said North Korea’s nuclear program remains “the most acute challenge to stability in northeast Asia.”

President Barack Obama’s administration would build a strong relationship with the reclusive communist regime if it scraps its nuclear program, which alarmed the world in 2006 with the test of a nuclear device, she said.

She added Washington would also “assist in meeting the energy and other economic needs of the North Korean people,” who face hunger and economic hardships.

Under a landmark deal in 2007 with the United States, China, South Korea, Japan and Russia, North Korea agreed to eliminate its weapons-grade nuclear programs in exchange for energy aid.

The talks stalled late last year when North Korea balked at its five partners’ demands for inspections and other steps to verify disarmament.

Clinton also said it is “incumbent on North Korea to avoid any provocative action and unhelpful rhetoric toward South Korea,” after North Korea scrapped military accords with the South in the last few weeks.

Reports from South Korea also say Pyongyang is preparing for the launch of a long-range missile.

Clinton’s visit comes at a time of rising cross-border tensions, with North Korea’s de facto head of state on Sunday threatening “decisive actions” against South Korea if it continues to challenge Pyongyang.

Kim Yong-Nam accused Seoul’s conservative government of pushing relations to the “brink of war” by violating summit accords reached between Pyongyang and Seoul in 2000 and 2007.

Meanwhile South Korea’s government urged activists to halt Monday’s planned launch of tens of thousands of anti-Pyongyang leaflets across the border to mark the 67th birthday of North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il, warning that the campaign could inflame the current tensions.

Kim allegedly suffered a stroke in mid-August but is said to be recovering well.

Clinton will travel with Todd Stern, her special envoy for climate change, and Christopher Hill, the Bush administration’s negotiator on North Korea who is now a leading candidate to become ambassador to Iraq.

Clinton appears to have chosen Japan for her first Asia stop to smooth feathers she ruffled there when she wrote during the US presidential primary campaign that the US-China relationship will be the most important one, according to Michael Green, an Asia adviser to former president George W. Bush.

Japan will likely raise its concerns about Japanese nationals whom North Korea abducted to train as spies during the Cold War after complaining the United States has relegated the issue in the nuclear disarmament negotiations.

Bonnie Glaser, a China expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, expected Clinton’s visit to Beijing to tackle North Korea, the financial crisis and climate change, but tread carefully on human rights.

China may repeat that it wants the United States to stop arms sales to Taiwan, but may settle for some “face-saving gesture by Washington to resume” high-level military exchanges suspended last year.

In Indonesia, the only stop in Southeast Asia, Green said Clinton may lay the groundwork for a “transformed relationship, new strategic partnership” with the world’s largest Muslim-majority country.

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