Clinton: Despite Economic Hardships at Home, It's Not the Time to ‘Downsize Our Work Around World’

By Patrick Goodenough | November 11, 2011 | 5:18am EST

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gives a speech at the East West Center on the campus of the University of Hawaii in Honolulu on Thursday, Nov. 10, 2011. (AP Photo/Marco Garcia)

( – Americans grappling with financial difficulties at home may question the wisdom of the U.S. choosing this time to expand engagement in the Asia-Pacific, but America cannot afford not to do so, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Thursday.

Delivering an address on what the administration is calling “America’s Pacific Century,” Clinton said suggestions that now is the time to “downsize our work around the world” and scale back was “understandable, but it is mistaken.”

“What will happen in Asia in the years ahead will have an enormous impact on our nation’s future, and we cannot afford to sit on the sidelines and leave it to others to determine our future for us.”

Clinton was speaking at the East-West Center in Hawaii at the start of an intensive, nine-day administration focus on U.S.-Asia ties.

President Obama hosts this year’s annual meeting of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum, in Honolulu this weekend. Obama and Clinton will then make separate bilateral trips to three treaty allies – the president for a twice-postponed visit to Australia, Clinton to Thailand and the Philippines – before both attend the East Asia Summit in Bali, Indonesia next week.

In her speech, which drew in part from an essay on the same subject published in Foreign Policy magazine last month, Clinton said that the winding up of the war in Iraq and the transition in Afghanistan after a decade of enormous investment in those theaters placed the U.S. at “a pivot point.”

“We now can redirect some of those investments to opportunities and obligations elsewhere,” she said. “And Asia stands out as a region where opportunities abound.”

“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 told an audience including leaders from a dozen Pacific island nations whom she will host for a separate meeting on the APEC sidelines on Saturday.

“One of the most important tasks of American statecraft over the next decades will be to lock in a substantially increased investment – diplomatic, economic, strategic and otherwise – in this region.”

Clinton said the U.S. was pursuing six key lines of action:

--Strengthening security alliances with the region’s five treaty allies, Japan, South Korea, Australia Thailand and the Philippines

--Deepening working relationships with emerging powers, including China – “our most complex and consequential relationships with an emerging power” – India and Indonesia, as well as others like Singapore, Malaysia and New Zealand.

--Engaging with regional multilateral institutions, including APEC, the East Asia Summit and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)

--Expanding trade and investment, through measures like the recently ratified U.S.-Korea free trade agreement and the developing Trans-Pacific Partnership, leading towards “meeting APEC’s goal of eventually creating a free trade area of the Asia-Pacific.”

--Forging a broad-based military presence, a process that incorporates changing “our force posture to ensure that it is geographically distributed, operationally resilient and politically sustainable.”

“A more broadly distributed military presence provides vital advantages, both in deterring and responding to threats, and in providing support for humanitarian missions,” she said.  (Clinton did not elaborate on this point, but in her Foreign Affairs article she cited plans to deploy littoral combat ships in Singapore and a recent agreement with Canberra to “explore a greater American military presence in Australia.”)

--Advancing democracy and human rights. Clinton cited concerns in this area in Burma, Vietnam and North Korea, but reserved her strongest words for China.

“We have made very clear our serious concerns about China’s record on human rights,” she said.

“When we see reports of lawyers, artists, and others who are detained or disappeared, the United States speaks up both publicly and privately. We are alarmed by recent incidents in Tibet of young people lighting themselves on fire in desperate acts of protest, as well as the continued house arrest of the Chinese lawyer Chen Guangcheng,” Clinton said. “We continue to call on China to embrace a different path.”

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