Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton will try to reassert American interests in the Asia-Pacific region in the face of China's growing influence as she kicks off a six-nation trip that will take her from the South Pacific to Russia's Far East.
Clinton left Washington on Thursday on a trip that will keep her half a world away from U.S. politics at the height of the presidential conventions. But her travels will put her at the center of rising tensions over territorial disputes involving China and its smaller neighbors in the South China Sea.
Clinton visits Beijing at the midpoint of the 11-day tour that begins in the remote Cook Islands, where she will be the first secretary of state to visit the South Pacific island chain that is home to just 10,000 people. On the main island of Rarotonga, she will attend an annual gathering of officials from Australia, New Zealand and the tiny nations scattered across the Pacific Ocean.
U.S. officials said Clinton will stress America's commitment to the sprawling yet sparsely populated area. It is threatened by rising waters, which are attributed to climate change, and faces a choice of whether to continue tight ties with the West or embrace burgeoning Chinese investment and power.
From there, Clinton heads to Indonesia, the seat of the secretariat of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, whose members are sharply divided over how to deal with China's expansion and conflicting claims over territory in the South China Sea.
A summit of regional leaders in July failed to reach consensus on how to handle the disputes. Clinton will press them to find common ground and hash out a framework for negotiating with China, U.S. officials said.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta will make his first visit to China as Pentagon chief in a few weeks.
After visiting China, where she will raise the South China Sea issue along with matters such as the unrest in Syria and Iran and North Korea's nuclear programs, Clinton will stop in East Timor, Brunei and then represent the U.S. at a summit of leaders from Pacific Rim countries in Vladivostok, Russia.
Clinton will be the first U.S. secretary of state to travel to East Timor when she makes a brief stop in Dili, the capital.
In another U.S. diplomatic first, the well-traveled Clinton will become the only secretary of state to touch ground in all 10 members of ASEAN when she holds talks in the small oil-rich nation of Brunei.
Clinton made history in December by going to Myanmar, which is emerging from decades of isolation.
After Brunei, Clinton will move on to Vladivostok to stand in for President Barack Obama at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, which is expected to center on trade and food security. In meetings with foreign leaders, Clinton also will discuss Syria, Iran and North Korea, and will lay the groundwork for the upcoming U.N. General Assembly, officials said.