Asia still ‘distant third’ in U.S. priorities, ex-Obama official says

On this week’s episode of “Conversations with Nicholas Kralev,” Kurt Campbell, former assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, talks about Asia’s “distant third” place in the U.S. diplomatic priorities, the obstructionism of North Korea’s young leader, and China’s global influence.

Singapore Airlines’ maddening perfection

Singapore Airlines topped yet another industry ranking this week, and while it usually deserves the awards it wins, there are a few aspects of the way it does business that drive some customers and partner-carriers crazy. Still, don’t expect those practices to change anytime soon.

The latest awards were bestowed by Britain’s Business Traveller Magazine. Singapore was named best airline overall and also won best economy and business class. Best first class went to Emirates, probably because of the shower on its Airbus 380 aircraft. I have yet to meet anyone who has flown Singapore and didn’t like it, regardless of which cabin they were in. It has long been the world’s leading carrier in hard-product innovation and luxury, often years ahead of its competitors…

Clinton pulls off diplomatic rarity in Asia

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton this week accomplished a diplomatic feat that her immediate predecessors tried but failed repeatedly to pull off: visiting South Korea, but skipping Japan and China on the same trip. It may sound immaterial, but defying protocol is a tricky thing in diplomacy, especially in Asia.

For years, I’ve been very amused when the State Department would send us in the traveling press corps a note about the secretary plans to visit just South Korea or just China or just Japan. Every time, I’d smirk and bet that he or she would end up going to all three countries — and I was right. That had become a tradition — the Japanese in particular considered it an affront to be ignored by their staunchest ally in favor of Seoul or Beijing.

U.S. offers India new nuke concessions

The United States has made new concessions as part of its civilian nuclear agreement with India, further angering arms control advocates, while New Delhi has yet to make it possible for U.S. companies to benefit from the unprecedented deal.

In the most recent accord completed late last month, Washington agreed to Indian demands to increase the number of plants allowed to reprocess U.S.-supplied nuclear fuel from one to two, with the option of another two if India’s needs grow in the future. At the same time, India thus far has failed to pass legislation that would release U.S. companies from liability in case of accidents related to equipment they have provided for two reactors expected to be built under the 2007 U.S.-Indian Nuclear Cooperation Agreement.

State plans new public diplomacy posts

The State Department plans to create seven new senior positions to ensure that a public-diplomacy perspective is always “incorporated” in policy-making around the world, as well as to respond quickly to negative coverage of the United States in foreign media.

In an ambitious strategy that goes beyond any previous efforts to reach out to other countries, the Obama administration “seeks to become woven into the fabric of the daily lives of people” there, its top public-diplomacy official said Wednesday. “We must do a better job of listening, learn how people in other countries and cultures listen to us, understand their desires and aspirations, and provide them with information and services of value to them,” said Judith A. McHale, undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs.

When ‘open skies’ aren’t really open

Having covered American diplomacy for a decade now, I’ve received many “diplomatic” answers to my questions — but none more so than “Yes, but not really.” I was reminded of it by the recently negotiated Open Skies aviation agreement between the United States and Japan.

The idea of the Open Skies accords, which Washington has with more than 90 countries, was to liberalize air travel between the signatories, allowing flights from any city in the first country to any city in the second without the previously imposed government restrictions. However, the deal reached with Japan in December has one glaring exception…

Hotels steps away from airport gates

It’s puzzling why in the United States, one of the most lucrative travel markets in the world, the concept of airport transit hotels is so foreign. There are signs that may be changing, but current plans seem more like baby steps than bold decision-making.

A recent trip to Asia reminded me of the lack of entrepreneurial thinking exhibited by many U.S. airport operators. Readers of this column may remember my praise for terminals in Hong Kong and Singapore earlier this year. Beyond design, comfort and cleanliness, having such a time- and hassle-saving convenience as a hotel under the same roof as your departure gate…

Continental shows new transparency

As Washington policymakers continue to question the value of global airline alliances, Continental Airlines has shown them a benefit they most likely never suspected: increasing the transparency of sensitive data tightly held by many carriers.

That may not have been what Continental set out to do, but it’s a positive side effect. The very day it officially joined the Star Alliance last week, it uploaded on its Web site “award” seats made available by other alliance members, which its customers can book using Continental frequent-flier miles. It took “nine months of planning and implementation”…

U.S. flights likely to Tokyo Haneda

Here is some good news for those of you seeking an alternative to Tokyo’s vast and faraway Narita International Airport: The Japanese government will likely soon allow nonstop flights between the United States and the city’s much smaller and nearby Haneda Airport.

There is, of course, some not-so-good news. Unless U.S. negotiators manage to pull a rabbit out of a hat, those flights will arrive and depart only between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m. — which means that takeoffs and landings at U.S. airports may have to occur in the middle of the night, too. Access to Haneda is one of the issues being discussed between the United States and Japan as part of ongoing negotiations of an Open Skies Agreement…

Paradise so close, yet so far

Do you sometimes find yourself unjustifiably envied by friends or colleagues for taking a business trip to a place known as “paradise on Earth”? Do you try to explain to them that you don’t really have time to enjoy it, or have you given that up?

“Tough life” is a sarcastic exclamation I often hear before traveling overseas, and to some extent I understand it. As often happens, at the beginning of the summer several friends asked me about my upcoming trips with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. Two of our planned destinations were the Greek island of Corfu and the Thai resort town of Phuket. No wonder people think I lead a charmed life. Although I have no reason to complain, the reality is very different…