TOKYO Feb 16 – US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was set to arrive in Japan on Monday at the start of an Asian tour expected to focus on the global economic crisis and hot-button security issues including North Korea.
Clinton – who will also visit Indonesia, South Korea and China – broke with a decades-old tradition of US top diplomats travelling first to Europe or the Middle East after taking office.
In her talks with Asian leaders, she was also expected to focus on international challenges such as climate change, conflict in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and preventing nuclear proliferation.
Two days before leaving Washington, Clinton said in a speech she was "ready to work with leaders in Asia to resolve the economic crisis" and "strengthen our historic partnerships and alliances."
Clinton also said she was "ready to help prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons in Asia" and that North Korea’s nuclear programme remains "the most acute challenge to stability in northeast Asia."
As she flew across the Pacific on Monday, a warning from North Korea and gloomy economic data on Japan’s recession both provided fresh fodder for the talks with her Asian hosts.
Hours before her evening arrival in Tokyo, North Korea fuelled speculation that it was preparing to test a long-range missile by suggesting it would go ahead with a rocket launch as part of what it called a space programme.
In Japan, meanwhile, the economics minister warned that Asia’s biggest economy shrank at the fastest pace in 35 years in the fourth quarter and faces the worst economic crisis since World War II.
Japan has greeted Clinton’s visit as a sign that the Barack Obama administration will maintain strong ties with its oldest regional ally despite China’s ascendancy as a geopolitical and economic power.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Takeo Kawamura said: "We will discuss how to handle the global economic crisis, the North Korean issue, the Afghanistan issue and other issues faced by the international community and the region.
"We will discuss ways to strengthen the Japan-US alliance. I think we will also strengthen our cooperation between Japan and the United States on the issue of North Korea," he told a news conference.
Earlier on Monday North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency reported on the planned missile test, asserting the country’s right to "space development."
Pyongyang has previously tested missiles under the guise of launching a satellite and analysts said the latest comments from the North indicated the communist state was on the verge of another attention-grabbing test.
US and South Korean officials say the North is preparing to test-launch its longest-range missile, the Taepodong-2, which could theoretically reach Alaska.
Clinton said two days before leaving Washington that the United States would build a strong relationship with the reclusive communist regime if it scraps its nuclear program, which alarmed the world in 2006 with a nuclear test.
Japan was also set to raise the emotive issue of Japanese nationals abducted by North Korea in the 1970s and 80s to train spies during the Cold War.
Clinton has agreed to meet with families of the abductees.
She was set to hold talks with embattled Prime Minister Taro Aso, Japan’s foreign and defence ministers, and main opposition leader Ichiro Ozawa, whose party is leading in opinion polls ahead of elections later this year.
Clinton also planned to sign an agreement to relocate 8,000 US marines from the southern Japanese base of Okinawa to the Pacific island of Guam.