Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Thursday vowed to expand U.S. engagement in the Asia-Pacific by building trade ties, reinforcing alliances and continuing to press for democratic reforms in authoritarian nations like China and Vietnam.
In a nearly hour-long outdoor speech, Clinton addressed a few hundred invited guests including Hawaii's political leaders, heads of a dozen Pacific island nations and senior U.S. military officials. Clinton was in Hawaii to attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, calling the event's host state "America's gateway to Asia."
"It is becoming increasingly clear that in the 21st century, the world's strategic and economic center of gravity will be the Asia-Pacific, from the Indian subcontinent to western shores of the Americas," Clinton said. "One of the most important tasks of American statecraft over the next decade will be to lock in a substantially increased investment _ diplomatic, economic, strategic, and otherwise _ in this region."
Clinton spoke at length about China and the need for the two nations to work together to ensure "strong, sustained and balanced future global growth." But China first needs to take steps to reform, she said, such as ending unfair discrimination against U.S. and other foreign companies, allowing its currency to appreciate more rapidly and ending measures that disadvantage or pirate foreign intellectual property.
"We believe that making these changes would provide a stronger foundation for stability and growth _ for China and for everyone," she said.
She also declared her "alarm" over the recent self-immolation of 11 Tibetan monks and nuns in protest of Chinese policy. It was the strongest U.S. wording so far on these incidents.
"We have made very clear our serious concerns about China's record on human rights," she said.
Clinton said it was critical to "engage and seize new opportunities" in the Asia-Pacific, which has nearly half of the world's population, several of the largest and fastest-growing economies and some of busiest ports and shipping lanes. She also talked about the challenges, such as military buildups, concerns about nuclear weapons, natural disasters and greenhouse gas emissions.
She said events elsewhere, such as the winding down of the war in Iraq and the transition in Afghanistan, helps makes the focus on the Asia-Pacific possible.
"After a decade in which we invested immense resources in these two theaters, we have reached a pivot point," she said. "We now can redirect some of those investments to opportunities and obligations elsewhere. And Asia stands out as a region where opportunities abound."
With Adm. Robert Willard, head of the U.S. Pacific Command, and Pacific Fleet Commander Adm. Patrick Walsh sitting in the front row, Clinton spoke about the role the U.S. plays in the region militarily with 50,000 troops stationed in Japan and South Korea.
"As this region changes, we must change our force posture, to ensure that it is geographically distributed, operationally resilient, and politically sustainable," she said. "A more broadly distributed military presence provides vital advantages, both in deterring and responding to threats, and in providing support for humanitarian missions."
Clinton said she is aware of concerns of Americans who have been hard hit financially and may question reaching out to Asia when now is the time to scale back.
"This thinking is understandable, but it is mistaken," she said. "What will happen in Asia in the years ahead will have an enormous impact on our nation's future. We cannot afford to sit on the sidelines and leave it to others to determine our future for us."
This was Clinton's third speech at the East-West Center, which was established by Congress in 1960 to promote understanding between the U.S. and Asia-Pacific nations.
Clinton held bilateral meetings later Thursday with foreign ministers from China, Japan, Australia and Vietnam.
A senior State Department official said the meetings went well, with the secretary emphasizing that "the United States is a resident power in the Asia-Pacific region and that we fully fundamentally recognize that the majority of the history of the 21st century is going to be written in this region and we're going to be a part of it."
After APEC, Clinton is to visit U.S. treaty allies Thailand and the Philippines before attending the annual East Asia summit in Indonesia with Obama. Clinton said she will visit South Korea later this month.
The State Department said the visits underscore U.S. efforts to strengthen key alliances in the region.
In Manila, Clinton on Tuesday will mark the 60th anniversary of the U.S.-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty. The next day, she goes to Bangkok, where Thai authorities are battling severe floods.
Clinton is scheduled to return to Washington on Nov. 19.
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