US shores up ties in Asia push

Posted at 04/29/2012 9:50 AM | Updated as of 04/29/2012 5:02 PM

WASHINGTON - The United States is embarking on two weeks of intense diplomacy on Asia as it seeks to rekindle friendly ties with Japan and India while managing an often fractious relationship with China.

President Barack Obama's administration has repeatedly said it has no strategy to contain China but it has been shoring up relations with neighboring countries, many of which are nervous about Beijing's rapid growth.

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda will meet Obama at the White House on Monday, followed by a gala dinner thrown by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who will fly out immediately afterward for major talks in Beijing.

Clinton will then head to India after a stop in Bangladesh. Clinton and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta will also hold their first joint talks Monday with counterparts from the Philippines, in a sign of a growing alliance.

Days ahead of Noda's visit, the United States and Japan announced a plan to pull 9,000 troops from Okinawa, seeking to address resentment over US bases on the island, which has been a key stumbling block between the Pacific allies.

Kurt Campbell, the assistant secretary of state for East Asia, voiced hope Thursday that the agreement would address "questions about the US-Japan alliance" that have risen in recent years amid changing governments in Tokyo.

The military deal "dispels any doubts -- we're still the foundation, we're still number one. We are the foundation for everything the United States does in the Asian-Pacific region," Campbell told a forum.

While Japan is a longstanding ally, the United States has increasingly looked to boost ties with India. Former president George W. Bush signed a landmark nuclear cooperation deal that symbolized a new relationship between the world's two largest democracies after unease during the Cold War.

Clinton, on her last visit to India in 2011, urged a greater global role for New Delhi and said that the US-Indian relationship would shape the 21st century.

But momentum has since cooled, with some US lawmakers for the first time in years criticizing India due to its refusal to fall immediately into line with a US law threatening sanctions on countries if they buy oil from Iran.

US businesses have also been concerned as India's parliament has balked on some of their main wishes, including opening up to foreign retail giants such as Walmart and providing nuclear firms exemption from liabilities.

Daniel Twining, a policymaker on Asia during the Bush administration, said that India and the United States initially moved closer due to a shared sense of values and competitors -- namely, China.

"The US-India relationship has frankly been drifting and there's angst in both capitals, but the reality is that the things that really bring us closest together, in the near term, are these common concerns about East Asia," said Twining, a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

On Japan, Twining voiced hope that Washington and Tokyo "can just put this Okinawa deal to bed" and focus on more strategic issues, such as missile defense and working together to secure Asia's tension-fraught sea lanes.

US officials have stressed that they do not see Asia in zero-sum terms. In a recent speech, Clinton said: "We will only succeed in building a peaceful, prosperous Asia-Pacific if we succeed in building an effective US-China relationship."

Clinton and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner had long planned the annual talks Thursday and Friday with China, which were expected to take up a range of issues from Iran to US complaints about China's trade practices.

But the so-called Strategic and Economic Dialogue may be overshadowed by the plight of Chen Guangcheng, a blind activist against forced abortions who activists say fled to the US embassy after repeated beatings by authorities.

US officials have refused comment on Chen's whereabouts. Obama would likely face a heated political backlash at home if US diplomats do not protect the activist.

Despite the disagreements on human rights, some US officials have been hopeful at small progress with China on issues such as North Korea, with Beijing voicing concern about its ally's recent rocket launch and potential upcoming nuclear test.

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