US Secretary of State Colin Powell meets Chinese President Hu Jintao in Beijing
Ng Han Guan  /  Reuters
U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell shakes hands with Chinese President Hu Jintao before their meeting at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Monday. 
By Producer
NBC News
updated 10/26/2004 9:08:32 AM ET 2004-10-26T13:08:32

Why is Secretary of State Powell traveling to Northeast Asia less than two weeks before the American presidential elections?    

Aides to Powell say he visited Tokyo, Beijing, and Seoul to meet with leaders there in an effort  to reinvigorate the stalled six-party North Korea nuclear talks, and to get ready for next month's Asia Pacific Economic Forum meeting in Chile, where President Bush will meet with China's President Hu Jintao and other Asian leaders.

True, there is a summit of leaders to prepare for next month; true, Powell hasn't been to the region for 18 months, and true, the six-party talks are stalled.

But many observers wonder if there aren't other reasons for this trip — a farewell tour for Powell as secretary of state? Perhaps, with Powell not active on the campaign, now was the perfect time to travel halfway around the world?

When pressed as to whether or not this was a farewell journey, Powell was adamant that it was not.

"I'm not on any farewell trips," he said on Tuesday during an interview in Seoul. "I'm not taking any victory laps. I'm hard at work doing my job. My job includes frequent and occasional travel to different parts of the world.” Video: Powell in East Asia

Assuring allies abroad
Whatever the main reason for the trip, Powell can claim some incremental diplomatic successes: a Chinese agreement to start the process toward resuming suspended talks on human rights, and a Chinese plan to push North Korea to return to the multiparty talks in the near future.

For his part, in public comments, Powell has sought to assure East Asian countries that the current U.S. administration is not a lame-duck government, saying Bush will win a second term.  

He told a press conference in China that he expects the U.S. relationship with China "will grow during President Bush's second term."

No doubt in a bid to convince nations in the region that U.S. policy towards six-party talks will stay the same, Powell said even if Kerry wins he doesn't expect the U.S. commitment to the multilateral process to flag.

Life on the knife's edge

"The North Koreans, I think, will discover after our election, however it turns out, they're going to have to deal with the six-party framework," he told Japanese journalists he met with in Tokyo.

Despite reassurances, speculation abounds
Welcoming Powell to China, President Hu Jintao seemed to echo the common feeling that Powell will soon leave office when he took time to extol Powell's service.

"Since you became US Secretary of State, you've made very positive improvements to U.S.-China bilateral relationship," contributions which Hu said he appreciates "highly."

But Powell isn't saying what his plans are — so no one knows for sure if he is a lame duck. 

Standing beside Japanese Foreign Minister Nobutaka Machimura, he told reporters in Tokyo that they had committed themselves to working on key issues "in the months ahead."

Immediately all sought to interpret: is he saying he's staying on in a possible second Bush Administration? Or by "months," is Powell hinting he could leave after as few as two months?   

The only thing he's said for certain, in an interview with Japanese reporters, is that he won't serve in a Kerry administration.

"Well, if Mr. Kerry wins, I will leave....I don't expect Mr. Kerry to win.  And I serve at the pleasure of President Bush."

Tamara Kupperman is the NBC News State Department producer.

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