U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visits the Avarua markets in Rarotonga, Cook Islands.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visits the Avarua markets in Rarotonga, Cook Islands. - 
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Sarah Gardner: If it seems like Hillary Clinton's always on the road, that's because she is. The jet-setting secretary of state has broken travel records in the job and right now she's in Asia for a 10-day tour. Tomorrow she'll be in China, where she's trying to calm tensions between Beijing and its neighbors. At issue? Two groups of islands in the South China Sea, south of Japan.

Marketplace's China Correspondent Rob Schmitz explains why it's so hard for China to back down.

Rob Schmitz: Islanders dressed in loin cloths playing bongo drums greeted Clinton in the Cook Islands over the weekend, a place that seems very far away from China. Yet China was what everyone wanted to talk about.

Hillary Clinton: We want to see China act in a fair and transparent way. We want to see them play a positive role in navigation and maritime security issues.

China’s not made a lot of friends in Asia this year. It’s reasserted claims to what it calls the Diaoyu Islands South of Japan, and to islands in the South China Sea. Thousands of Chinese have joined anti-Japanese protests in recent weeks.

Carl Thayer, professor emeritus at the University of New South Wales, calls this resource nationalism.

Carl Thayer: Resource nationalism is the belief that the resources are being plundered that belong to China justly and there’s so much out there that China’s losing.

In the South China Sea alone, some scientists estimate natural gas reserves at triple the entire domestic supply of the United States.

A few years ago, China put pressure on U.S. oil company Exxon Mobile. It told Exxon if it worked with Vietnam to develop offshore rigs in the disputed area, it could say goodbye to projects in China.

Thayer: If you try to engage other countries in Southeast Asia, where China has a dispute, you could suffer the consequences.

After China threatened Exxon, the Obama administration put what Thayer calls "a full court press" on China, and it backed off. But in June, China’s National Offshore Oil Company auctioned off blocks of underwater territory -- part of which encroached on Exxon’s project.

In Shanghai, I’m Rob Schmitz for Marketplace.

Follow Rob Schmitz at @rob_schmitz