Tokyo U.S. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell arrived here Monday on his first swing through Asia amid two breaking regional crises the ouster of Indonesia's president and the plummeting of Tokyo's stock market that underscore the challenges the Bush administration faces across the Pacific.
The United States quickly embraced the hasty elevation of Vice President Megawati Sukarnoputri to head Indonesia, despite the refusal of her predecessor, Abdurrahman Wahid, to step aside. But U.S. officials are seriously concerned about the prospect of unrest in the world's fourth most populous country.
Regional stability will be a prime topic at the annual Association of South East Asian Nations conference this week in Vietnam, which brought Powell to Asia.
Powell arrived in a region already nervous about a severe economic slump, which is almost certain to take further hits after Tokyo stocks dropped to a 16-year low Monday over concern about corporate earnings and local bank attempts to write off bad loans. The dramatic drop may also complicate or delay government reform efforts.
Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, who came to power in April, pledged that his government will continue with its reform agenda regardless of a gyrating market. On Monday en route to Tokyo, Powell told reporters that he would "encourage aggressive action" to expedite Japan's reforms.
Powell's weeklong tour will also take him to China, South Korea and Australia. His trip to Beijing will be the first visit by a senior official since the April crisis over an American spy plane that was forced to land on China's Hainan island. The secretary is expected to take steps to improve U.S.-China relations in advance of President Bush's scheduled visit in October.
The controversial U.S. plan to develop and deploy a new missile defense system, which would mean overhauling the structure of arms control dating back half a century, will be a prominent issue at every stop. Powell is expected to play salesman throughout the region in the face of significant global skepticism.
Missile defense arguably has more support in Japan, given its proximity to North Korea, than it does among Europeans.
At a news briefing before leaving Washington, Powell said he was pleased that the Japanese government has an open mind on missile defense.
But the reception in China and among some ASEAN countries is not expected to be as warm. Several countries fear that the new U.S. strategy to deal with weapons of mass destruction will only trigger a new race in offensive arms, notably in China, rather than simply provide an innovative approach to defending America and its allies.
In Japan, Powell faced two other particularly sensitive issues. The most contentious topic between the two long-standing allies is the Kyoto Protocol on global warming, which Bush has rejected. At the G-8 talks over the weekend, Koizumi said he is still trying to persuade the United States to sign on.
The U.S. military presence in Japan represents a second thorny bilateral issue. The alleged rape of a Japanese woman by a 24-year-old U.S. airman in Okinawa late last month angered Japanese and spurred new demands here to reduce the number of U.S. troops stationed in Japan.