US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton heads Friday to an Asia-Pacific summit torn by disputes between China and its neighbours after a tour aimed at unifying Southeast Asia.
After spending much of her 11-day tour focused on the tense South China Sea, Clinton will attend the summit in Vladivostok, Russia, where friction is rife between China and Japan as well as between US allies Japan and South Korea.
Clinton on Friday plans to highlight an initiative funded by the tiny gas-rich sultanate of Brunei for US instruction in English in Southeast Asia, part of an effort to raise economic potential in poorer parts of the region.
Clinton will discuss the project at a university after dining with Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, who invited her delegation to his imposing palace full of giant neon floral patterns and sparkling lights in the palm trees.
With the stop in Brunei, Clinton becomes the first US secretary of state to visit all 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, where several governments are engaged in bitter territorial disputes with China.
President Barack Obama's administration has put a high priority on building relations with ASEAN, seeing the bloc as economically dynamic and mostly US-friendly. Clinton has urged ASEAN unity in the face of a rising China.
Clinton, who met much of China's top leadership on a visit to Beijing on Wednesday, said that she had hoped on the tour to see ways forward on the region's territorial disputes but would stand firm on US interests.
"The United States -- certainly I -- am not going to shy away from standing up for our strategic interests, and in expressing clearly where we differ," Clinton told reporters Thursday on a stop in East Timor.
"The mark of a mature relationship -- whether it's between nations or between people -- is not whether we agree on everything, because that is highly unlikely between nations and people, but whether we can work through the issues that are difficult," she said.
Clinton has voiced hope that China and Southeast Asian nations will work on a code of conduct to manage disputes, ideally in time for an East Asia Summit in Cambodia in November.
Brunei, which also has territorial disputes with China, takes over the helm of ASEAN and the East Asia Summit next year. A US official travelling with Clinton said that Brunei was "nervous" about how to manage the disputes and did not want to appear to take sides between China and the United States.
The official said that easing tensions was in the interest of all sides but that Asia has seen "a very certain and definite rise in nationalism, which triggers issues associated with territory, with history and with politics".
"It is a very potent brew and it leads to really unpredictable circumstances," the official said on condition of anonymity.
China and Japan, Asia's two largest economies, are not expected to hold a summit on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation talks in Vladivostok as a dispute flares over islands in the East China Sea.
Possibly more alarming for the United States, tensions have soared between its two main allies in Northeast Asia, Japan and South Korea, whose leaders are also likely to avoid one another at the 21-member APEC summit.
South Korean President Lee Myung-Bak, long seen as one of the closest foreign allies of Obama, outraged Japan by making an unprecedented trip to disputed islands in the Sea of Japan, known in Korean as the East Sea.
Clinton is taking part in the summit instead of Obama, who hosted last year's APEC meet in Hawaii but has other priorities this time as he delivers his re-election campaign speech at the Democratic convention in North Carolina.
Russian President Vladimir Putin will meet Clinton only briefly as she is not a head of state, his top foreign policy aide said.
However, Clinton plans talks with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov that are expected to focus on the two countries' sharp differences over Syria.