Hillary Clinton starts her trip to Asia tomorrow, her first abroad as secretary of state. The first stop is Tokyo. That’s followed by Jakarta and Seoul. She ends her excellent adventure in the magnificent capital of Beijing. Long on symbolism and short on substance, Mrs. Clinton’s trip signals the importance of Asia in her calculations.
Everybody’s talking about what she’ll be doing on the trip, but it’s just as important to say what she will not. She will not, for instance, be going to two places that should have been on the itinerary: Canberra and New Delhi. To her credit, Mrs. Clinton will be reassuring American allies Japan and South Korea by her visits there. Yet she is not making the effort to go to the most reliable friend in the region, Australia. In a time when Washington will need all the support it can get in Asia, the omission is a mistake, especially because Obama’s Washington needs to renew the ties that George W. Bush and John Howard, then prime minister, worked so hard to strengthen. Skipping Australia is especially sensitive because Mrs. Clinton is going out of her way to visit Indonesia, with which Canberra has often had uneasy relations.
A bigger omission, in many senses, is India. The most important foreign policy legacy of the Bush years will undoubtedly turn out to be the beginning of a strategic relationship with New Delhi. The partnership of the world’s largest democracy and its most powerful one can be the most important force for peace and prosperity in the world. The Indians do not want to be used by the United States, but they have so many common interests with Americans that the unspoken alliance is a natural one.
Instead of going to New Delhi, Mrs. Clinton is headed to the Chinese capital. The stopover will produce a lot of nice words but no results, or at least none favorable to us. Just weeks in office, the Obama administration has had insufficient time to think through its China policy or even name its ambassador to Beijing. The best the secretary of state can hope for from her China stopover is that she leaves without making any blunders of lasting significance.
If she really wants to accomplish anything with the Chinese during her time in office, Mrs. Clinton should show them that the United States is prepared to work closely with the one nation they truly fear. So the route to an effective China policy runs through New Delhi. That’s just one of the many reasons why the new secretary of state should have gone there on her first trip.