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Opinion: Clinton Right to Make Asia Her First Destination

On Monday, Hillary Clinton arrives in Japan, the first stop of an Asia tour and her first foreign trip as US secretary of state. The first trip is usually to Europe or the Mideast. DW's Michael Knigge has this analysis.

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With the decision to travel to Asia, America's new chief diplomat is showing where her emphasis lies. Traditionally, new US secretaries of state make their first trips to Europe or to the Middle East. Clinton's preference for Asia leads to a rather obvious and not entirely new interpretation -- namely, that Asia is taking priority over Europe or the Middle East in US foreign policy under Barack Obama. The secretary of state's trip to Japan, Indonesia, South Korea and China symbolizes this change in outlook.

There is no question that since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the US has changed its strategic focus. Asia has become more important while Europe and the Middle East have lost some of their relative weight. However, in actual fact, Europe still plays a strategically central role in US foreign policy.

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Deutsche Welle's Michael Knigge

While that can partially be explained by the many strong political, economic and cultural ties between Europe and the US, it is also due to America's desire to successfully pursue its interests. To do this so-called "power projection," even a superpower like the US needs partners. And these days, particularly since the Iraq war, Washington knows that there is no other international partner besides Europe where, despite all the differences, so many values and interests overlap.

So why is Clinton going to Asia instead of Europe, a place that the US seems to be appreciating again? The reasons are simple: the US vice-president's first foreign trip was to Europe, more specifically, to Germany and the UK. Joe Biden gave a much-anticipated speech in Munich, seen by many as the first blueprint of the Obama administration's foreign policy.

Biden's presence at the Munich Security Conference was, from a protocol standpoint, even more unusual than Clinton's trip to Asia. Normally, this security meeting is attended by the US secretary of defense. But the man in that post, Robert Gates, while much admired by Obama, remains a symbolic remnant of the Bush administration under which he also served. So it is understandable that the Obama team chose someone else to announce their new foreign policy direction. And since sending Secretary of State Clinton would have seemed an affront to Gates, Obama sent his own vice-president as well as National Security Advisor James Jones to Munich.

Both the sending of Biden to Munich and the fact that the vice-president gave a foreign policy keynote speech in Europe illustrates clearly that the continent and Washington are getting closer. President Obama himself is expected at the NATO summit in Baden-Baden and Strasbourg in April.

Even the Middle East has no reason to feel snubbed by Clinton's Asia trip, since George Mitchell, Obama's new Middle East envoy, went to the region right after the inauguration. Before the end of this month he is expected to go again. The story is the same with Afghanistan and Pakistan, where Richard Holbrooke is engaged in a continual round of shuttle diplomacy.

And with Obama's plate overflowing with crises to tackle, he has opted for a strategy of delegation. In his much-discussed "team of rivals," Clinton, Biden, Gates, Jones as well as Mitchell and Holbrook all play central roles.

On the other hand, if Clinton's first foreign trip were scheduled for somewhere in Europe or the Middle East, Asian countries might indeed feel snubbed, especially since they can't expect a visit from Obama or Biden in the first weeks of the new administration.

For the US, the Asian countries are simply too important to be ignored, or put off. Japan is a close ally and economic power; Indonesia is the world's biggest Muslim country; South Korea shares a border with an unpredictable North Korea; and China is a rapidly growing world power.

Clinton's choice for her first trip abroad is a sensible one.

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