WASHINGTON — The surge of violence in Iraq will dominate Vice President Dick Cheney's seven-day swing across Asia that begins on Friday.
On Thursday, the kidnapping of three Japanese and brief detention of seven South Koreans working in Iraq cast a sharp light on the increasing dangers of supporting the war.
To date, Washington’s Asian-Pacific allies have been stalwart supporters, despite political pressure at home.
But the kidnappings will be "very much on their minds," a senior administration official said Thursday, referring to leaders of South Korea and Japan.
Cheney, for his part, will seek to assure the various Asian leaders about Washington's commitment to Iraq, the official said in a briefing ahead of the trip.
The vice president will explain the process to transfer sovereignty to Iraq will begin at the end of June and that the United States will stay only as long as required to make sure the nation develops a strong government.
But "we don't want to stay any longer than necessary," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
While discussions on the war in Iraq should top the docket, Cheney also will likely tackle a number of other sensitive issues such as U.S.-China relations and the Korean nuclear threat, as well as basic trade issues which have a bearing on the domestic political situation at home during a critical election year.
The trip also raises the profile of the vice president, on what is only his third trip abroad since taking office.
The White House, citing security concerns, did not make available specific details about Cheney's schedule, but the Japanese news service Kyodo reported the vice president would travel first to Japan, staying in-country from April 10 to April 13.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Kong Quan said Cheney would visit China from April 13 to April 15. The balance of his trip will be spent in South Korea, before returning to Washington on April 16.
The trip had originally been planned for April 2003, at the invitation of then-Vice President Hu Jintao of China, but was postponed by the White House because of the war in Iraq. Hu was elected president of China last year and Cheney will now be hosted by his counterpart Vice President Zeng Qinghong during the working visit.
Iraq issue threatens to overshadow mission
The fact that Cheney’s trip will begin amid some of the worst violence against coalition forces and civilians in Iraq since the height of the war last year threatens to overshadow his mission.
On Thursday, Japan vowed not to withdraw its forces from Iraq, despite the kidnapping of three civilians and threats to kill them unless their forces leave the country.
Japan currently has about 530 troops in southern Iraq, part of a total planned deployment of 1,100 soldiers, working on a mission to purify water and carry out other reconstruction tasks.
South Korea, for its part, has about 460 medics and military engineers in Nasiriyah. Seoul also is poised to send more than 3,000 additional troops, and has recently renewed its vow to move forward with that commitment.
Yet public opinion in both countries has been divided, and with dramatic video of Japanese captives in Iraq flooding the airwaves ahead of Cheney’s visit, pressure for a withdrawal of troops will undoubtedly gain momentum.
Wide range of issues on the agenda
The White House declined to provide details on Cheney's mission other than saying that the "agenda will include consultations on a range of bilateral and regional issues in East Asia, as well as cooperation in fighting the global war on terror."
The issue of North Korea's pursuit of nuclear weapons will also likely be a major topic.
Progress on the issue has been stymied since six-nation talks in Beijing in February proved fruitless. China, in particular, is seen as a key player on the issue, holding more influence with the Communist North than some other parties to the talks.
Although Cheney could reinforce the Bush administration’s hard-line on negotiations with North Korea, raising the Pyongyang problem with the interested Asian parties could also be perilous.
Foreign policy analyst Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution cautioned, "By going over there, Cheney risks drawing attention to the fact that the North Korean nuclear situation is much more dangerous than it was two years ago."
Trade is another issue to look for on the lineup as economic and jobs concerns take on increased importance in the election year.
With most U.S.-Asia issues not primed for real breakthroughs, Cheney's greatest achievement might indeed be domestic rather than diplomatic, O'Hanlon said.
"Raising some of these issues — that's probably the most useful thing Cheney can accomplish back home for re-election purposes."
On Wednesday He Yafei, the Chinese foreign ministry's pointman on North America, also looked at Cheney's visit through the prism of U.S. domestic politics.
"During U.S. elections, everyone knows anything can happen," he said. "But I think one thing I want to stress is regardless of how the U.S. government changes, and what the election result is, one thing is clear, China-U.S. relations still needs to continue to develop."
But in advance of Cheney's arrival, Beijing took umbrage at the notion China was to blame for U.S. economic woes. "China's trade with the United States constitutes less than 1 percent of U.S. GDP. No matter what happens in trade, it will not influence the overall US economy," He said.
Perhaps the topic most fraught with controversy will be talks with China over Taiwan. Perennially a hot-button issue in U.S.-Sino relations, the Pentagon's recent approval of the sale to Taiwan of an anti-missile radar system — which could be used to detect and defend against an attack from the mainland — has raised the ire of Beijing.
While in China, Cheney is expected to meet with Premier Wen Jiabao, Chairman Jiang Zemin, and President Hu Jintao, as well as Vice President Zeng. Items such as the pirating of music and movies, currency valuation and human rights will also be prime topics for discussion.
In Japan, Cheney will likely meet with Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and Japanese Emperor Akihito, as well as Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda and Foreign Minister Yoriko Kawaguchi. Other bilateral issues on the agenda could include the Japanese ban on U.S. beef due to fears of mad-cow disease.
In South Korea, Cheney will meet with Prime Minister and acting President Goh Kun. The U.S. would like to raise the specter of moving U.S. troops from the border of North Korea further South.
Expanding overseas profile
The profile-raising visit also comes as the Bush-Cheney 2004 re-election campaign gears up.
O’Hanlon suggested that the visit is a way for Cheney to "inoculate himself against charges that he's been very insular as a very powerful vice president involved in foreign policy. He's anticipating that critique and diffusing it."
The week-long outing will be only Cheney's third official trip overseas as vice president. He also traveled to the Middle East in 2002 and to Switzerland and Italy in January of this year.
Cheney made a previous turn through Asia as Secretary of Defense in 1990. During that trip he visited the Philippines, Japan, and South Korea.
Sources say Cheney is also expected to stop in Anchorage, Alaska, while en route to Japan to headline a fund-raiser for Sen. Lisa Murkowski's re-election campaign.
Alicia Jennings is a White House producer for NBC News. NBC's Tammy Kupperman at the State Department and the Associated Press contributed to this article.