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Published: Saturday, 2/14/2009

Critical journey

HILLARY Clinton's decision to make her first trip as secretary of state to East Asia reflects the growing importance of U.S. relations with that part of the world.

The choice of itinerary - China, Japan, South Korea, and Indonesia - underscores the emphasis of the Obama Administration on commercial and financial ties abroad as he tackles head on the problem of resuscitating a gasping U.S. economy. A particular problem involving East Asia that faces President Obama as he seeks to move forward with his economic stimulus plan is paying for it and other economic revival plans from a budget already headlong in deficit.

The just-departed administration of President George W. Bush was borrowing billions a day from China, Japan, Europe, the Middle East, and elsewhere to finance both its budget deficit and the Iraq war. China is judged to hold at least $1 trillion in U.S. Treasury bonds. Add on the new trillions already committed or promised to try to rescue the economy - at a time when foreign countries, too, are feeling the icy blast from the growing hole in U.S. imports and overall economic ills - and the necessary increase in borrowing abroad becomes a major issue in U.S. foreign relations.

China, with an export-based economy, is in particular feeling the impact of a weakening U.S. and global economy. Statistics from China are always hard to assess, given the size and nature of its economy and the secretiveness of its government. At the same time, it is clear from reports that China is now trimming back projections of hitherto double-digit growth. Unemployment is rising and projections of gross domestic product are dropping.

Of special concern to China is growing unemployment among its hundreds of millions of migrant workers. It is also becoming increasingly difficult for its millions of graduates to find what they consider appropriate employment. History shows that a combination of unemployed migrant workers and students has sometimes been a lethal concoction in China that fueled political unrest.

Inside the Obama Administration, it is not yet clear if it will be the Treasury secretary or the secretary of state who will be the prime mover in U.S.-China relations. Under Mr. Bush, it was Treasury. Regardless of who it is in the new regime, there will be plenty to do to keep U.S. relations with China, as well as with Japan and Korea (also big trading and financial partners), on a positive course.

With her trip scheduled to start tomorrow, Mrs. Clinton apparently will be first off the mark in tackling this important problem, with potentially monumental consequences at home and abroad. If China were to react to its own economic woes by cutting its purchases of Treasury bonds, America's economic situation and prospects would worsen considerably.



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