Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton's three-nation Asia tour is likely to be dominated by a new crisis with North Korea -- this time accused of sinking a South Korean naval ship with a deadly torpedo attack.
South Korea's release Wednesday of a report blaming North Korea for the March 26 sinking of the South Korean warship Cheonan changed the outlook for Clinton's trip, her fifth to Asia as America's top diplomat.
Just hours before Clinton departed, the White House called the ship sinking an "act of aggression" that is "one more instance of North Korea's unacceptable behavior and defiance of international law." In a statement, officials called it "a challenge to international peace and security and ... a violation of the Armistice Agreement" that ended the Korean War.
The State Department added that the evidence ruled out any alternative explanation and the United States was "already working very closely with our ally (South Korea) and consulting with our partners regarding appropriate steps."
North Korea denies it attacked the South Korean warship, and has said that sanctions or other forms of retaliation would trigger "all-out war," raising the prospect of an escalating crisis on the heavily armed Korean peninsula.
The U.S. has 28,500 troops in South Korea.
The centerpiece of Clinton's trip, which includes scheduled stops in Japan, China and South Korea, was supposed to be a new round of U.S.-China strategic and economic talks. Clinton is headed for Beijing on one leg of the the trip, where trade and other concerns may be eclipsed by efforts to get China to support new sanctions against North Korea in the U.N. Security Council.
But with the Chinese holding the most leverage over reclusive North Korea, its support for any international response to Pyongyang will be critical to its success. Kurt Campbell, the top U.S. diplomat for Asia, acknowledged that a main reason for Clinton's trip "will be to have the closest possible consultation with Japan, China and South Korea on the next phase" of the North Korean situation. He said it would be a prime agenda item in Clinton's talks with Chinese President Hu Jintao, Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi and State Councilor Dai Bingguo.
"A central issue of discussion for Secretary Clinton with her interlocutors ... will be on their assessments of developments in North Korea and their reaction to the report," he said.
They'll also be discussing trying to convince China to agree to tougher U.N. sanctions on Iran, something China has traditionally has opposed. China has reluctantly agreed to support watered-down new economic penalties, thus far.
The focus will be a far cry from the original intent of the economic and trade issues that were the reason the U.S.-China strategic talks were begun in 2006 by the Bush administration under then-Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and expanded by the Obama administration in 2009.
The talks were intended to keep pressure on China to allow its currency to rise in value against the dollar as a way to narrow America's huge trade deficit with China, the largest trade gap the United States runs with any country.
Treasury officials insist the economic issues, including China's currency, will be a major part of the discussions next week, but they play down any suggestions that China might announce it is starting to let its currency, the yuan, rise in value against the dollar.
At her first stop in Tokyo on Friday, a key issue is expected to be a U.S.-Japan dispute over the relocation of Marine Corps Air Station Futenma on the southern island of Okinawa.
After a subsequent good-will visit to the World Expo in Shanghai on Friday and Saturday, Clinton will join Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner in Beijing for the two days of talks with Chinese leaders.
AP Economics Writer Martin Crutsinger contributed to this report.