WASHINGTON - Secretary of State Hillary Clinton heads to the South Pacific this week, working to boost key U.S. alliances while pressing Japan to resolve a damaging dispute over a critical U.S. military base.
Clinton's nine-day trip will start in Hawaii -- where she will meet Japanese Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada on Tuesday -- and proceed to Papua New Guinea, Australia and New Zealand, all of which have warm links with the Obama administration.
China is not on the itinerary, but will nevertheless be on the agenda as President Barack Obama's top diplomat seeks to assess how old U.S. allies are grappling with Beijing's growing economic and military might in the region.
Any major power in the western Asia Pacific region is wrestling with the rise of China: what that means for its own politics, its own foreign policy, its own economy, said Michael O'Hanlon, a security expert at Washington's Brookings Institution.
Each one has its own potential weaknesses or vulnerabilities or limits.
President Obama, on his own Asian tour in October, described himself as America's first Pacific president and Clinton has signalled she will put a priority on mapping out the future of Asia-Pacific ties.
The shifting dynamic has been clear in Japan, where Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama's government is in a dispute with Washington over relocating the Marines' Futenma base in Okinawa -- a concrete example of the U.S.-Japan security alliance which marks its 50th anniversary this month.
Hatoyama's new Democratic Party government has sought to strike a more independent foreign policy and is stalling on plans to relocate the Futenma base on Okinawa island, frustrating Washington.
U.S. officials say Clinton will press Okada to pledge to uphold a 2006 plan to move the base to a less crowded part of Okinawa -- rather than off the island entirely as many Okinawans demand -- although few are expecting any immediate breakthroughs.We just hope that they can come to some resolution on this as quickly as possible so that we can get back on track, Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell told reporters.
ENVIRONMENT, TRADE -- AND AFGHANISTAN
Clinton will also give a speech on U.S. Asia-Pacific policy before going to Papua New Guinea, where she will highlight environmental issues as the Obama administration keeps a focus on climate change after last month's rocky Copenhagen summit.
Clinton's next two stops in New Zealand and Australia should be easier, although the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan, nuclear and trade issues will all be on the table along with frank discussions about China and the deadlock over Iran's nuclear program, analysts say.
In New Zealand, Clinton will meet Prime Minister John Key on Friday to cement ties with his centre-right government whose victory in 2008 ended nine years of Labour Party leaders who often struck an anti-American tone.
New Zealand is particularly keen that Washington put muscle behind talks on the Trans-pacific Partnership free trade pact, which would group the United States, New Zealand, Vietnam, Brunei, Australia, Singapore, Chile and Peru.
In Australia, Clinton will meet Prime Minister Kevin Rudd on Sunday before joining U.S. Defence Secretary Robert Gates for an annual meeting with their Australian counterparts likely to feature discussions of the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan.
There are about 1,500 Australian troops in Afghanistan, the biggest non-NATO contingent in the war against Taliban extremists. Washington is pushing allies to contribute more to match its own deployment of 30,000 new troops, but Australia is unlikely to increase its military presence there.
I don't detect any appetite in the government for increasing the troop contribution, and it doesn't appear that anybody in Washington is manhandling them, Australian political analyst Michael Fullilove of Sydney's Lowy Institute said in an interview.(Reporting by Andrew Quinn; editing by Todd Eastham)