Secretary Clinton in Asia

Summary: Secretary Clinton’s trip to Asia highlighted the importance of confidence-building measures and symbolism in traditional state-to-state diplomacy, but also reflected the distinctive style of the Obama administration.

From the announcement of the trip’s destination to Japan, South Korea, Indonesia and China, local and international coverage examined its global significance, mainly the decision not to head first to Europe or the Middle East, the more traditional route. The Economist noted that Secretary Clinton followed Dean Rusk’s lead from 1961, making her only the second American Secretary of State to choose Asia for their first foreign trip.

Each port of call appeared to represent clear U.S. priorities. Media coverage speculated that Japan was chosen to demonstrate U.S. appreciation for the long-existing – though seemingly forgotten, U.S.-Japan alliance. A stop in Indonesia was seen as showing a desire to engage with the Muslim world and to reconnect with ASEAN. Visiting South Korea was seen as a nod to an important trading partner and growing regional power. Finally, the China trip was understood as a reflection of the U.S. belief that cooperating with the Asian giant is the key to easing many world problems, including security challenges from North Korea and Iran. Those Asian countries excluded from Secretary Clinton’s trip, such as Taiwan and the Philippines, noted their disappointment but expressed guarded optimism about prospects of a future visit. The consensus among most, however, was that the trip represented a reorientation and shift away from the Bush administration’s policy towards the region. The Los Angeles Times heralded the maiden voyage, calling Clinton’s trip “an appreciation of Asia’s diplomatic culture, which values face-time and presence, and will be crucial to fostering a more balanced U.S. foreign policy.”

Not surprisingly, coverage of Clinton’s remarks in China emphasized her attention to the global economic crisis and the need to address climate change. Clinton’s focus on climate change was depicted as part of a broader administration effort to persuade China to join the United States’ commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. RTÉ noted that despite Clinton’s anti-China rhetoric during the democratic primaries, she managed to reframe U.S.-Sino relations saying, “Some believe that China on the rise is, by definition, an adversary…On the contrary we believe that the U.S. and China can benefit and contribute to each other’s successes.” It was noted in The Wall Street Journal that Clinton also took a different tack on the question of human rights compared with her stance during the primaries, emphasizing that a discussion about human rights would not derail other important discussions. A San Francisco Chronicle op-ed compared China’s largesse in the region to the U.S.’s less reliable presence, noting in particular that U.S. aid was tied to conditions whereas China’s was not. This so-called “charm offensive” has enabled China to gain political capital among regional allies. Kishore Mahbubani, writing in the Khaleej Times (United Arab Emirates), also addressed this problem, emphasizing the need for a long-term strategic thinking; a recommendation echoed by may public diplomacy advocates in the U.S.

Likewise, U.S. domestic coverage recognized the need for substance as well as signals. The Heritage Foundation issued a paper calling for Clinton to “strike a balance between accommodating allied concerns while still advocating strong U.S. objectives. Foreign Policy argued the need to look beyond China to India.

Reporting about Clinton’s Asia tour did not vary significantly among different international broadcasters in the region, although many did add a local perspective. The Sidney Morning Herald, for example, noted that Clinton phoned Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd during the trip to discuss the role of the G20 in the financial crisis. The Jakarta Post described Clinton’s visit as tacit support for President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and Vice President Jusuf Kalla before the elections, suggesting that the two would profit greatly from international recognition of their role in consolidating and stabilizing Indonesia’s democracy over the last five years.

Reporting of the tour also emphasized Secretary Clinton’s unique approach to diplomacy with parallels drawn to her campaign persona. She held “town hall” meetings with students in Japan and South Korea, and scheduled a web chat in China. BBC News also described Clinton’s unique stamp on the role, charging that “it seemed to be more about Hillary and less about foreign policy.”  Clinton was also frequently compared to the more austere Secretary Condoleezza Rice. One such critic, Nirav Patel wrote that Washington’s disregard and strategic neglect of Asia was epitomized by the former Secretary of State’s repeated absence from high-level ministerial meetings. 

On the public diplomacy front, the Times of India commented on President Obama’s instinct for using symbolism in diplomacy, noting the President’s trip to Canada, and emphasizing the appointment of soft power proponent Joseph Nye as U.S. Ambassador to Japan, as well as Clinton’s invitation to Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso to be the first foreign leader to meet with the president. Clinton herself defined her role as not about repairing relations with governments, but about trying to influence people’s view of America. To Clinton, meeting with Japanese students or chatting to Indonesians about the clean water and health care projects funded by the U.S. in their country was a form of public diplomacy. “This, to me, is what diplomacy is about,” she said. “It doesn’t just operate ... government to government. It operates people to people.” Perhaps most important for U.S. public diplomacy was the appearance of listening more than speaking. Glenn Kessler dubbed the trip “The Global Listening Tour,” and quoted Clinton’s address to a group of Japanese students in which she stated: “My trip here today is to hear your views, because I believe strongly that we learn from listening to one another.”  The diplomatic trip also demonstrated how U.S. diplomats are embracing nontraditional methods, tact and tone, a development exemplified by Clinton’s appearance on Indonesian MTV.

This media monitor tracked coverage of the U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s first official foreign trip from its announcement in early February through to March 1, 2009, with a focus on stories relevant to the public diplomacy of the U.S. and its relationships in the region, including priorities, symbolism of the trip to the region and the world and Clinton’s own capacity to engage in public diplomacy. The monitor was divided into local coverage originating within the United States, and international coverage by media outlets around the globe. Below are the stories that were collected as part of the Media Monitor.


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