PAGO PAGO, American Samoa >> Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton returned to American soil on Monday after a marathon two-week trip to the Asia-Pacific during which the domestic U.S. political landscape dramatically changed amid growing international concerns about China becoming more aggressive.
Clinton touched down in American Samoa on her way back to Washington, where Republican gains in Congress in last week’s midterm elections may complicate some key Obama administration foreign policy priorities. She said protecting American interests abroad should not be a partisan matter and has vowed to work with the new Republican leadership.
But some GOP lawmakers are threatening deep cuts in foreign affairs funding and it’s unclear if heavy lobbying from the administration will convince the lame-duck Senate to ratify a major arms reduction treaty with Russia. Others have questioned the administration’s strategy in Afghanistan and the Middle East.
Despite those differences, the new Congress and the administration are likely to see eye-to-eye on the main purpose for Clinton’s lengthy tour: checking the influence of a rising China that has become increasingly assertive as its economic might grows.
Beginning Oct. 27, Clinton visited Vietnam, China, Cambodia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, New Zealand and Australia to cement ties with China’s wary neighbors, assure them of America’s commitment to remaining a dominant Asia-Pacific power and press Chinese officials to play a more responsible and predictable role on the regional and world stage.
"We’ve been here, we are here and we will be here," she said Monday in Australia, referring to America’s military, diplomatic and commercial presence in the region.
"As China becomes more of a player in regional and global affairs, then we expect that China will be a responsible player and will participate in the international framework of rules that govern the way nations behave and conduct themselves," Clinton said.
Clinton’s longest trip abroad as secretary of state took her from Cambodia’s 12th-century Angkor Wat temple complex to 21st-century environmental innovations in Australia, with stops at a base for Antarctic research in New Zealand and a mangrove forest in Papua New Guinea.
She started the journey in Hawaii, where she and Japan’s foreign minister called on Beijing to clarify its position of the export of rare earth minerals that are vital to the global high-tech industry and to work with Tokyo on resolving competing claims to territory in the East China Sea that have ratcheted up tensions.
Two days later, in talks in Vietnam and then on China’s Hainan Island, Clinton won assurances from top Chinese officials that they would remain a reliable supplier of the precious metals. But she was unable to interest them in an offer to host talks with Japan over the island dispute.
China rejected the proposal and has reacted angrily to U.S. declarations that resolution of such disputes is an American national security concern. The rejection prompted Clinton to renew the offer and restate the U.S. interest in ensuring freedom of navigation and maritime safety in the region.
And she made clear that despite China’s assurances on rare earth exports, the international community must diversify its sources for the material. China now supplies 97 percent of the world’s rare earth production and continuing to depend on it would be a strategic mistake, Clinton said.
In Cambodia, which is heavily dependent on Chinese investment and trade, Clinton warned against the dangers of over-reliance on any one nation or partner.
That theme was also evident in Malaysia and in New Zealand, where she signed a declaration aimed at fully restoring military ties and bringing a final end to a lingering nuclear dispute that had dogged relations for 25 years.
At her last stop in Melbourne, Australia, she and Defense Secretary Robert Gates, along with their Australian colleagues, agreed to step up military and defense cooperation with the clear goal of expanding the projection of U.S. power in the Asia-Pacific.
In a joint statement, the two nations "affirmed the need for peaceful resolution of regional maritime territorial disputes, including in the South China Sea and the East China Sea. They supported negotiation of a more formal, binding code of conduct for the South China Sea."