Honolulu: Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Thursday vowed to expand US 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, Hillary addressed a few hundred invited guests including Hawaii's political leaders, heads of a dozen Pacific island nations and senior US military officials. Hillary 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 centre of gravity will be the Asia-Pacific, from the Indian subcontinent to western shores of the Americas," Hillary 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."
Hillary 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 US 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 US wording so far on these incidents.
"We have made very clear our serious concerns about China's record on human rights," she said.
Hillary 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 theatres, 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 Admiral Robert Willard, head of the US Pacific Command, and Pacific Fleet Commander Admiral Patrick Walsh sitting in the front row, Hillary spoke about the role the US 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."
Hillary 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 Hillary's third speech at the East-West Centre, which was established by Congress in 1960 to promote understanding between the US and Asia-Pacific nations.
Hillary 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 emphasising that "the United States is a resident power in the Asia-Pacific region and that we fully fundamentally recognise 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, Hillary is to visit US treaty allies Thailand and the Philippines before attending the annual East Asia summit in Indonesia with Obama. Hillary said she will visit South Korea later this month.
The State Department said the visits underscore US efforts to strengthen key alliances in the region.
In Manila, Hillary on Tuesday will mark the 60th anniversary of the U.S.-Philippines Mutual Defence Treaty. The next day, she goes to Bangkok, where Thai authorities are battling severe floods.
Hillary is scheduled to return to Washington on November 19.
First Published: Friday, November 11, 2011, 18:38