In Asia, Clinton Reaches Across Islands

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Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's tour through Southeast Asia and the Pacific is aimed at stepping up U.S. engagement on a host of regional issues in the region. But friction between Japan and China over a group of uninhabited islands in the East China Sea pushed its way onto Clinton's agenda Saturday.


Secretary of State Hillary Clinton roamed among the ruins of Cambodia's Angkor Wat temple complex today. She's on one of her longest trips to Asia to date. The focus was meant to be on Southeast Asia, but friction with China has pushed its way onto her agenda.

NPR's Anthony Kuhn is traveling with the secretary and has this report from Siem Reap, Cambodia.

ANTHONY KUHN: Last time Secretary Clinton was in Hanoi in July, China's claims to disputed maritime territories overshadowed some of her meetings with Asian leaders. She surely didn't hope for a repeat, but since then, public protests have erupted in China and Japan, and official meetings have been canceled over just who owns the Diaoyu Islands, as they're known in Chinese, or the Senkakus in Japanese.

In Hanoi yesterday, Secretary Clinton restated U.S. support for Japan's jurisdiction over the uninhabited islands in the East China Sea.

Secretary HILLARY CLINTON (Department of State): With respect to the Senkaku Islands, the United States has never taken a position on sovereignty. But we have made it very clear that the islands are part of our mutual treaty obligations and the obligation to defend Japan.

Mr. NORIYUKI SHIKATA (Spokesman, Japanese Foreign Ministry): We appreciate the U.S. commitments for the defense of Japan and trying to ensure peace and security in the Asian region.

KUHN: Japanese Foreign Ministry spokesman Noriyuki Shikata suggests that the simmering dispute with China will draw the U.S. and Japan closer.

Mr. SHIKATA: We think that the current uncertain situation in the region will provide opportunities for us to update our alliance.

KUHN: Beijing is not happy when the U.S. sides with any of China's neighbors in a dispute. And it doesn't buy the argument that the U.S. can remain neutral about who owns the islands and still protect them on Japan's behalf.

Yesterday, Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi warned Secretary Clinton to be careful in handling and speaking about the Diaoyu Islands row. Secretary Clinton made it clear that U.S. relations with China were not the lynchpin of U.S. involvement in the region.

Ms. CLINTON: We will consult closely with our treaty allies, Japan, South Korea, Australia, Thailand, and the Philippines, as the foundation of our engagement in the Asia-Pacific. And we will continue to expand our emerging partnerships with a wide range of countries from New Zealand, India, China, Indonesia.

KUHN: Beijing, though, does not want tensions with Washington to get out of hand. A U.S. official who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity said that State Councilor Dai Bingguo proposed to Secretary Clinton last night a detailed plan to keep relations on track, including a visit to the U.S. next year by President Hu Jintao.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Siem Reap, Cambodia.

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