Obama names Japan expert as top East Asia diplomat

WASHINGTON (AFP) - President Barack Obama has named Mr Danny Russel, a close aide with expertise in Japan, as the top US diplomat for East Asia charged with handling relations with the vast and growing region.

The Senate will need to confirm Mr Russel as the assistant secretary of state for East Asia.

Mr Obama, announcing Russel and other nominees on Wednesday, praised them for their "depth of experience and tremendous dedication" to their work.

Mr Russel has served since 2011 as the White House's senior director on Asian affairs, helping flesh out the Obama administration's "pivot" policy of putting a higher priority on Asia at a time that China is gaining in clout.

As assistant secretary of state, Mr Russel would be further on the frontlines of diplomacy. His nomination is likely to be welcomed in Japan, where officials are sometimes sensitive about remaining high on the US priority list.

While involved on issues throughout Asia, the career diplomat has spent considerable time on Japan and previously served as the top State Department official on Japan and as consul general in Osaka.

Mr Russel is considered more soft-spoken than his predecessor Kurt Campbell, a confidant of former secretary of state Hillary Clinton who was known for his high-octane style and punishing travel schedule.

The White House has said that Mr Obama will maintain a strong interest in Asia in his second term, but some pundits believe that the "pivot" strategy was largely an initiative of Clinton and Campbell.

Secretary of State John Kerry has put an emphasis on the Middle East in his early travel since taking office, although he also visited China, Japan and South Korea.

Critics have questioned the long gap in naming Mr Campbell's successor, with no permanent assistant secretary in place during visits by the new leaders of two close US allies, South Korean President Park Geun-Hye and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, and a crisis with North Korea.