U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton heads Thursday to the South Pacific for the start of an Asian tour expected to focus on China's growing influence in the region.
Clinton will begin her six-nation trip in the remote Cook Islands, where she will become the first ever U.S. secretary of state to attend the annual Pacific Islands Forum.
U.S. State Department officials say several stops on the trip will include talks on the heated territorial disputes between China and its neighbors over the South China Sea.
Washington has been critical of China's increasingly aggressive maritime claims in the region, which is thought to contain vast amounts of oil and gas reserves.
A Thursday commentary in China's state-run Xinhua news agency questioned Clinton's trip, saying it is “aimed at curbing China's growing influence” in the South Pacific.
The strongly worded editorial said the U.S. is intentionally “stirring up disputes” in the region, and called on Washington to “abandon its surreal ambition of ruling the Asia-Pacific and the world.”
Observers say Clinton's visit – her third to Asia since May – underscores the importance of the Obama administration's recent “pivot” toward Asia.
But Ralph Cossa, a security analyst at the Pacific Forum in Hawaii, says the increased U.S. attention does not mean Washington is trying to contain the rise of China.
“China wouldn't be rising if it weren't for U.S. investment and U.S. policy since the Nixon administration's policy of engaging China and helping it to grow,” says Cossa. “So if we're trying to contain China, we're sure going about it the wrong way by putting billions of dollars in investment to make China part of the industrialized world.”
Regarding the South China Sea disputes, Cossa says he expects little progress when Clinton is expected to raise the issue during meetings with Chinese leaders in Beijing next week.
“It's a real dialogue of the deaf, in some respects. The Chinese think we're meddling, and we think we're acting as a responsible major power that is concerned about our allies, concerned about freedom of navigation, and concerned about regional stability.”
Clinton's trip will also take her to Brunei, Indonesia, East Timor, and Russia, where she will lead the U.S. delegation at the Asia Pacific Economic Forum on September 8-9.