WASHINGTON - US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton sets off Thursday on a sweeping Asia tour from a rising China to tiny island states as her outspoken role on the region's hotspots raises hackles in Beijing.
In the midst of a US presidential campaign, the former candidate is expected to steer clear of politics at home and portray Washington as an anchor of stability in a region where China has increasingly butted heads with neighbors.
Clinton will head first to the Cook Islands, an archipelago of just 11,000 people, to become the first US secretary of state to take part in an annual summit of South Pacific islands -- where China's clout is growing.
Clinton will go Tuesday to China, where aides said she will meet President Hu Jintao and other top officials and take up the full gamut of issues between the world's two largest economies, including heated maritime disputes.
In unusually robust statements, the United States has recently accused China of escalating tensions and warned against "divide and conquer" tactics after Beijing set up a remote garrison in the South China Sea.
The Philippines, Vietnam and other nations claim islands in the South China Sea -- the passageway for half of the world's commercial cargo -- and have accused Beijing of a campaign of intimidation.
China's state-run Xinhua news agency accused Clinton of trying to "contain China's increasing influence" and said that the core of US strategy "is to defend its dominance and hegemony in the Asia-Pacific region."
Xinhua had harsher words for Mitt Romney, who is challenging President Barack Obama in November 6 elections, saying that the Republican's tough talk on issues from Taiwan to exchange rates could end up "poisoning" the tone in US-China relations.
During Clinton's last visit to the region in July, foreign ministers from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations failed at a meeting in Beijing-friendly Cambodia to forge a common way forward that would let them seek a code of conduct to govern disputes in the South China Sea.
A senior US official said that Clinton wanted all sides "to abstain from provocative steps" and that she would confer with Indonesia and Brunei on the future of diplomacy for a long-mooted code of conduct.
"She's certainly going to ask in ASEAN about the aftermath of what transpired in July," the official said on condition of anonymity.
Ernie Bower of the Center for Strategic and International Studies said that Clinton's visit -- her third to Asia since May -- was part of an effort to "institutionalize" US presence on the continent, particularly the Pacific.
"One of the enormous motivations behind it is to manage China well, but I don't think it's all about China," said Bower, the director of the think tank's Southeast Asia program.
"There are also a lot of intrinsic benefits for the United States through good relationships, security ties and economic ties" in Asia, he said.
Clinton, who will end her trip at an Asia Pacific summit in the Russian port city of Vladivostok off the Pacific Ocean, will also be confronted by rising friction over territorial disputes between Japan and both fellow US ally South Korea and China.
"I have to say that the recent spate of tensions between Japan and Korea has caused concerns in the United States and elsewhere and we are again urging restraint, calm and statesmanship," the US official said.
The official said that the United States hoped that individual citizens and business leaders could work to create a "21st-century" relationship between Japan and South Korea, whose ties are marred by wartime memories.
The flareup, including a visit by South Korean President Lee Myung-Bak to islands disputed with Japan, has set back US hopes that its two allies would work together in the face of a rising China and uncertainties over nuclear-armed North Korea.
Clinton, who is already the most-traveled secretary of state in US history, will chalk up several new feats on her trip.
Besides being the first to take part in the Pacific Islands Forum, Clinton will become the first secretary of state to visit East Timor, which is still developing after it painfully won independence from Indonesia in 2002.
And with her trip to Brunei, Clinton becomes the first top US diplomat to visit all 10 nations in ASEAN.