Hillary Clinton to visit Australia, New Zealand

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will visit Australia and New Zealand next week, further cementing improved relations with two key Pacific allies in a region overshadowed by the rise of China.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks to the press during a joint press conference with Qatar's Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad Bin Jassim Jabr Al-Thani following their bilateral meeting at the State Department in Washington, January 4, 2010. REUTERS/Jason Reed

Clinton will deliver a policy speech on U.S. engagement with the Asia-Pacific region in Honolulu on January 12, and will make a stop in Papua New Guinea on January 14 to discuss the environment and women’s issue, the State Department said in a statement on Wednesday.

Political analysts say the visit will likely boost Washington’s warm relations with the two Pacific countries, where President Barack Obama’s election in 2008 was greeted with enthusiasm.

Clinton’s stop in New Zealand on January 15-17 will feature a meeting with Prime Minister John Key, whose election at the head of a center-right government in 2008 ended nine years of rule by Labour Party governments that often struck an anti-American tone.

Obama and Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd have also established a good working relationship, analysts say, with the two governments largely aligned on many key international issues, including climate change policies.

In Australia, Clinton and U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates will participate in regular ministerial consultations with their Australian counterparts on a Jan 17-19 visit that will take her to the capital Canberra and Melbourne, the State Department said.

The visit will be Clinton’s first to the region since becoming the top U.S. diplomat last year, and comes as all three countries grapple with the rising political and economic influence of China on the world stage.

Clinton is also expected to discuss the Obama administration’s plans to dramatically step up the war against Taliban militants in Afghanistan, where both Australia and New Zealand have forces.

U.S. officials have urged allies to contribute more to a planned “surge” that will see 30,000 more U.S. troops sent to the region in an effort to shore up the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

Australia has about 1,500 troops in the country but has not indicated that it plans to send any more. New Zealand has a 140-member provincial reconstruction team in Bamiyan province west of Kabul, and Key has also committed to deploy about 70 members of New Zealand’s elite special forces.

reporting by Andrew Quinn; editing by Paul Simao