The more things change, the more things stay the same. That is a phrase echoing around Asia's diplomatic salons ahead of the first visit to Asia by new US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on behalf of her boss - and former bitter political rival - new US President Barack Obama. Mr Obama's stunning election victory was marked in part by his invoking of the need for change, so undoubtedly, Mrs Clinton promises a fresh start to America's engagement with East Asia. On the other hand, he entered office carrying the bipartisan baggage of previous presidents when it comes to America's key relationships and it is wrong to think the core precepts that have guided US diplomacy in this region have suddenly toppled. It is no surprise, for example, that Mrs Clinton's first stop will be Japan on February 16. The focus of the trip may increasingly prove to be on China but Mr Obama and Mrs Clinton appear keen to buttress Washington's most important security relationship in the region. Take a close look at his election speeches and it is clear he is determined to shore up America's traditional alliances. Japan sits at the core of the projection of the US as Asia's leading military power, a strategic assumption that has governed the region for decades. China's rise, of course, is challenging those assumptions long term but Washington is in no mood to see them dissolve too rapidly. Officially, the US State Department played down the significance when asked why Mrs Clinton had selected Japan as her very first foreign stop. 'Japan is an important partner and ally to the United States,' acting department spokesman Robert Wood said. 'Again, it has to do with scheduling.' In Washington and across the region, diplomats paint a slightly different picture. The US-Japan relationship, while militarily vital, is seldom smooth and the Obama team is keen to get it off on the right foot. Washington has long nudged Japan to take greater responsibility for its own defences, and has worked to secure the future of the alliance. That will continue. It comes, too, at a highly sensitive time for the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. Its leadership in disarray and facing an unprecedented threat to its five-decade dominance, Japan is staring into the abyss of its most serious economic crisis since the end of the second world war. Mrs Clinton can be expected to want her own take on the stability of her leading East Asian ally. 'Mr Obama has always made clear that a broader and deeper relationship with China will not come at the expense of existing alliances or new friendships,' said one administration source. 'And it is important that we strike that balance right from the first step.' That concept is also visible elsewhere in Mrs Clinton's itinerary. She will head to Indonesia - an emerging friend and a key potential plank in Mr Obama's attempt to reach out to the Muslim world - and then old ally South Korea before jetting to a big finish in Beijing. Mr Obama spent part of his childhood growing up in Jakarta and, as home to the world's largest Muslim population, it is going to be one of his most closely watched regional relationships. The air of stability that anchors the sense of change will also work in China's favour, of course. Scan the Sino-US relationship over the past 40 years and it is clear that every US president since Richard Nixon has broadened and deepened ties with Beijing, even if through tensions and some fierce rhetoric, from both Republicans and Democrats. It is highly unlikely that Mr Obama will prove an exception, even as he moves initially to quietly shore up America's traditional security relationships. It is just one more reminder that, at core, he is a leader decidedly averse to risk.