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Few deliverables expected on Clinton’s Asia trip

Hillary Clinton is on her way to Asia for the fifth time since becoming secretary of state (compared to one trip for President Obama), and although the trip is heavily weighted toward China, the discussions are sure to be dominated by how Pacific nations should respond to the evidently well-documented allegation that North Korea torpedoed ...

Alex Wong/Getty Images
Alex Wong/Getty Images
Alex Wong/Getty Images

Hillary Clinton is on her way to Asia for the fifth time since becoming secretary of state (compared to one trip for President Obama), and although the trip is heavily weighted toward China, the discussions are sure to be dominated by how Pacific nations should respond to the evidently well-documented allegation that North Korea torpedoed a South Korea ship in March.

"This was a serious provocation. There will be definitely be consequences because of what North Korea has done," State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said Thursday. "This is abominable ... It is not the way that civilized nations act toward one another."

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said the U.S. "strongly condemns" the action and added, "this clear violation of the armistice agreement further sets them back and further isolates" North Korea, but declined to say whether there would be any firm consequences going forward.

Hillary Clinton is on her way to Asia for the fifth time since becoming secretary of state (compared to one trip for President Obama), and although the trip is heavily weighted toward China, the discussions are sure to be dominated by how Pacific nations should respond to the evidently well-documented allegation that North Korea torpedoed a South Korea ship in March.

"This was a serious provocation. There will be definitely be consequences because of what North Korea has done," State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said Thursday. "This is abominable … It is not the way that civilized nations act toward one another."

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said the U.S. "strongly condemns" the action and added, "this clear violation of the armistice agreement further sets them back and further isolates" North Korea, but declined to say whether there would be any firm consequences going forward.

Why so vague? Clinton and her team have some tough work ahead of them if they want to get everybody on the same page regarding the incident. Meanwhile, the trip was already packed with other business on a range of bilateral and regional issues. Here’s what to watch:

JAPAN: The Japanese media is reporting that the U.S. and Japan are getting ready to announce on May 28 a deal to move the Futenma air station to another part of Okinawa, largely in line with the 2006 agreement that the Japanese government had campaigned on changing. The Nelson Report, a Washington insider newsletter, claimed Wednesday that the Japanese reports are "not the entire story."

It’s no secret that the relations between Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama and the Obama administration have been frosty. Hatoyama’s decision initially not to honor the basing deal was a risky one. Expect him to lay the groundwork during the Clinton trip to walk back that position.

The sinking of the South Korea ship actually reinforces the need for a strong U.S.-Japan security alliance in Japan’s eyes, so expect Clinton and Hatoyama to project unity. But at the same time, Japan is still more hawkish on North Korea than the Obama administration wants to be; Japan has already joined South Korea’s call for strong U.N. Security Council action. Clinton is unlikely to lay out a firm U.S. position until she has had a chance to consult with the South Koreans and the Chinese.

"The DPJ is realizing that there was a reason for the U.S.-Japan alliance after all and the South Korean report of the sinking of the Cheonan certainly makes that case," said Devin Stewart, senior fellow at the Carnegie Council. "While China has sought to take advantage of the current bumpy spot in U.S.-Japan relations to move closer to Japan — perhaps at the expense of the U.S. — the Japanese government and the Japanese people see the value in a close relationship with the U.S."

CHINA: Clinton will spend five days in China, compared with one each in Japan and Korea. The official reason for the journey is for the second round of the U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue, which includes a 200-plus contingent of U.S. officials. But the substance of the dialogue is not so  revolutionary. The economic track will focus on U.S. calls for Chinese currency revaluation and China’s "indigenous innovation" policy, but nobody expects movement on the Chinese side on either issue during the trip. The strategic side will likely be hijacked by the North Korea issue, as opposed to less flashy topics such as military-to-military cooperation.

"It’s a dialogue of convenience right now," said Derek Scissors, research fellow in Asia economic policy at the Heritage Foundation, "Nothing valuable is going to come out of the dialogue on the economic side because the U.S. isn’t going in trying to do anything valuable."

The Chinese have been less than enthusiastic about getting involved in the torpedo incident. They didn’t issue a statement of condolence for weeks after the boat sank, and declined this week to send their ambassador in Seoul to a briefing on the South Korean investigation, sending the embassy’s No 2 instead. The recent visit to China by Kim Jong Il did not go well. It was reported that he left early, in a huff because Chinese President Hu Jintao expressed Chinese interest in getting more involved in North Korean domestic affairs. Clinton will need China to at least not forswear U.N. action; a Chinese abstention on any Security Council resolution would be good enough. But it will be tough for Clinton to pressure China into any specific course of action, mainly because the U.S. hasn’t decided what action it is advocating in the first place.

As for the dialogue itself, the deliverables will be thin. The plenary session will focus on energy security, the low-hanging fruit that both sides can agree to support. The Obama administration is interested in the overall issue of world economic rebalancing, but the administration isn’t making that a priority in the talks right now, probably due to its own vulnerability on the issue.
Clinton will have to press hard for some statement on China’s commitment to the draft Iran sanctions resolution. In the wake of the Copenhagen mess, neither side wants to talk about climate change. Taiwan is not on the agenda; that’s probably a good sign because it means that Taiwan is not a flash point in the relationship right now.

KOREA: By the time the Clinton team gets to Korea, the last leg on the trip, the state of play on the ship sinking may have changed. South Korea may have already announced a series of unilateral actions against the North, including trade restrictions and maybe even a shutdown of the Kaesong Industrial Complex. The U.S. will have to decide by then whether it wants to join South Korea in calling for a Security Council resolution with some teeth, a general U.N. statement, or something else.

It’s important for Clinton to stand side-by-side with the South Koreans and announce initiatives can be seen as addressing the issue directly, such as improved intelligence coordination and more transfers of submarine-detection capability. As for the Six-Party Talks on North Korea’s nuclear program, they were on life support before, and North Korea is trying to pull the plug. But the Obama administration can’t pronounce the talks dead because that may be exactly what the North Koreans want.

No matter what U.N. action the allies can muster, there is likely to be little effect on Pyongyang. The North Koreans feel safe that the U.S. cannot retaliate militarily, because there’s a risk of massive escalation that puts Seoul in immediate danger. And a country that care little about the suffering of its own people is impervious to most sanctions.

"They look at the U.S. and think ‘What are they going to do?" said retired ambassador Jack Pritchard, president of the Korean Economic Institute, noting that North Korea has a long history of launching violent attacks near its borders. "They’ve gotten away with it before; they’ll probably continue to get away with it. There are few actual consequences."

Josh Rogin covers national security and foreign policy and writes the daily Web column The Cable. His column appears bi-weekly in the print edition of The Washington Post. He can be reached for comments or tips at josh.rogin@foreignpolicy.com.

Previously, Josh covered defense and foreign policy as a staff writer for Congressional Quarterly, writing extensively on Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo Bay, U.S.-Asia relations, defense budgeting and appropriations, and the defense lobbying and contracting industries. Prior to that, he covered military modernization, cyber warfare, space, and missile defense for Federal Computer Week Magazine. He has also served as Pentagon Staff Reporter for the Asahi Shimbun, Japan's leading daily newspaper, in its Washington, D.C., bureau, where he reported on U.S.-Japan relations, Chinese military modernization, the North Korean nuclear crisis, and more.

A graduate of George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, Josh lived in Yokohama, Japan, and studied at Tokyo's Sophia University. He speaks conversational Japanese and has reported from the region. He has also worked at the House International Relations Committee, the Embassy of Japan, and the Brookings Institution.

Josh's reporting has been featured on CNN, MSNBC, C-Span, CBS, ABC, NPR, WTOP, and several other outlets. He was a 2008-2009 National Press Foundation's Paul Miller Washington Reporting Fellow, 2009 military reporting fellow with the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism and the 2011 recipient of the InterAction Award for Excellence in International Reporting. He hails from Philadelphia and lives in Washington, D.C. Twitter: @joshrogin

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