By David Brunnstrom
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry will begin a trip this week to China, South Korea, Indonesia and the United Arab Emirates, the State Department said on Sunday, at a time of high tensions in Asia over China's increasingly assertive territorial claims.
The trip, which runs from Thursday to February 18, will be Kerry's fifth visit to Asia since he became secretary of state just over a year ago, and comes before a planned visit by President Barack Obama in April to promote a strategic U.S. "pivot" to the region announced in 2011.
Kerry will visit Seoul, Beijing, Jakarta and Abu Dhabi "to meet with senior government officials and address a range of bilateral, regional, and global issues," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in a statement.
In Beijing and Seoul, Kerry's talks are expected to focus on an air defense zone China declared last year covering territory also claimed by South Korea and Japan, including uninhabited islands in the East China Sea. He is also expected to discuss concerns about North Korea's nuclear program.
Psaki said Kerry would relay to Chinese officials "that the United States is committed to pursuing a positive, cooperative, comprehensive relationship and welcomes the rise of a peaceful and prosperous China that plays a positive role in world affairs."
He will also discuss North Korea and highlight the importance of U.S.-China collaboration on climate change and clean energy, Psaki's statement said.
During his stop in Seoul, Kerry will discuss North Korea and ways to expand U.S.-South Korean cooperation on regional and global issues, the statement added.
In Jakarta, Kerry will co-chair the Joint Commission Meeting under the U.S.-Indonesia Comprehensive Partnership and meet the secretary general of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
While in Abu Dhabi, he will discuss issues of interest to the U.S.-UAE relationship, the State Department said.
Kerry has faced criticism for the amount of time he has devoted to peace efforts in the Middle East rather than the rebalancing of military and economic focus toward Asia in reaction to the growing clout of China.
Concerns about U.S. commitments to the region were highlighted in October when Obama called off plans to attend two summits in Asia because of a budget crisis at home.
Kerry stood in for Obama at those meetings and held talks in Japan involving U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida and Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera in which they agreed to modernize the U.S.-Japan defense alliance for the first time in 16 years.
Vice President Joe Biden followed up with a visit to Japan, Beijing and Seoul in December, but Kerry will have to work hard to counter a perception among many in Asia that Obama's pivot is more rhetoric than substance.
On Friday, Kerry met Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida in Washington and stressed the U.S. commitment to the defense of Japan and stability in the Asia-Pacific region against the backdrop of Chinese territorial claims.
He said the United States and Japan were committed to closer security collaboration and reiterated that Washington "neither recognizes nor accepts" an air defense zone China has declared in East China Sea and would not change how it conducts operations there.
The United States flew B-52s through the Chinese air defense zone after it was declared last year. U.S. officials have warned that any declaration by Beijing of another such zone in the South China Sea could result in changes to U.S. military deployments in the region.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei attacked Kerry's remarks on Saturday, saying China's air defense zone was fully in line with international law and norms.
"We urge the U.S. side to stop making irresponsible remarks so as not to harm regional stability and the China-U.S. relationship," Hong said.
(Reporting by David Brunnstrom; Editing by Doina Chiacu and Peter Cooney)