Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told a small group of Special Olympic athletes and two female Japanese astronauts that she chose Asia as her first foreign trip as secretary "to convey that America's relationship across the Pacific are indispensable to seizing the opportunities and addressing the challenges of the 21st century."
Not since the 1960s has a secretary of state put Asia first on the travel agenda. In addition to Japan, the secretary will make stops in Seoul, South Korea; Jakarta; Indonesia; and Beijing, during her weeklong trip.
On the 15-hour flight to Tokyo, Clinton made several trips to the back of the plane to speak with reporters. She said that the backdrop for the trip is the global economic crisis. Hours before Clinton's arrival, Japan announced that its gross domestic product had dropped at the annual pace of 12.7 percent, the steepest drop in 35 years. The secretary said that during her meetings with her foreign counterparts she would discuss the details of the U.S. stimulus package and see how "together we are going to approach these economic times."
Clinton told reporters that she has spoken to Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner about a "comprehensive unified approach" and that the two are discussing a division of responsibilities.
The economy may be high on the agenda, but North Korea will be a major topic as well. The secretary's visit comes in the midst of loud saber rattling from North Korea, which is again threatening war with its neighbor South Korea, while giving strong indications that it is preparing to test-fire a long-range missile. High-octane rhetoric is nothing new for North Korea, but South Korean and Japanese intelligence officials say a train carrying a long cylinder-shaped object has been spotted heading to a North Korean launch site.
Clinton issued a stark warning to North Korea before leaving for Asia: "It is incumbent on North Korea to avoid any provocative action and unhelpful rhetoric towards South Korea." But the secretary also did her part to lower the heat, saying that the Obama administration has "a great openness toward working" with North Korea and will be willing to normalize bilateral relations if it "completely and verifiably" eliminates its nuclear weapons program.
Six-party nuclear talks with North Korea were stalled after North Korea rejected verification requirements that can help prove it is halting its nuclear arms program. Clinton said en route to Tokyo that there is no doubt that North Korea now has nuclear weapons.
While in Japan, Clinton will sign the Guam International Agreement, which will move 8,000 U.S. troops from Okinawa to Guam, which is a U.S. territory.
She will also meet with families of kidnap victims taken decades ago by North Korea. The secretary said she has great sympathy and empathy for the families and will pressure North Korea to address the issue.
Clinton has yet to announce her goals during her trip to China. The secretary has announced that the United States and China will soon resume midlevel military-to-military talks, which were halted last year over a U.S. arms deal with Taiwan. She has also made clear that China needs to do more on climate change.