Always one to try to understand, never one to avoid controversy, keynoter Charles Freeman promises to set an inquiring and enlightening tone that will continue throughout next February’s Camden Conference on The Challenges of Asia.

Tickets are already on sale to Conference members. They will go on sale to the general public Monday, Nov. 29 at www.camdenconference.org and by phone at 236-1034. Dates of the Conference are Feb. 18-20, 2011.

In the keynote address that opens the Conference Friday, Feb. 18 Freeman, Nixon’s interpreter in his breakthrough 1972 visit to China and a former ambassador to Saudi Arabia, will lay out the wide range of challenges that a rising Asia poses to the United States and highlight some of the challenges that this massive continent — home to more than 60 percent of the world’s people — faces internally. While fluent in Mandarin, with expertise in China burnished during a stint as No. 2 in the U.S. embassy in Beijing and later co-chair of the U.S. China Policy Foundation, Freeman also served in Thailand and is likely to brush a broader stroke, encompassing India and the rest of Asia.

The ambassadorship to Saudi Arabia that topped off Freeman’s varied diplomatic career coincided with the first U.S. Gulf War in 1991. His wide-ranging experience in strategic and military, as well as economic and trade issues, mirrors the enormous scope of topics other speakers will be addressing in more detail in the course of February’s three-day conference in the Camden Opera House. Live feeds will stream the conference to satellite locations at the Strand in Rockland, the Hutchinson Center in Belfast and, for the first time, the Grand in Ellsworth.

Speakers will include Indian-born economist and specialist in development and trade policies, Pranab Bardhan; Chinese historian and diplomatic scholar, Lanxin Xiang; president of the Korea Economic Institute in Washington and former U.S. ambassador for negotiations with North Korea, Charles (Jack) Pritchard; acclaimed journalists Hannah Beech of Time magazine; and Robert Kaplan of The Atlantic monthly. Speakers at this 24th annual Camden Conference are as varied as the images brought to mind by the deliberately all-encompassing theme: The Challenges of Asia.

The conference moderator will be, for the second year running, Nicholas Burns. His easy rapport with the speakers and local audience alike made him a popular favorite at last year’s conference on Afghanistan, Pakistan, India — Crossroads of Conflict. Now a professor of diplomacy and international politics at Harvard’s Kennedy School and director of the Future of Diplomacy Project and faculty chair for programs on India and South Asia, as well as the Middle East, Burns served as undersecretary of state for political affairs from 2005 to 2008, the No. 3 position in the state department His first appearance at the conference was as a featured speaker at the 2009 Camden Conference on Global Leadership and the U.S. role in world affairs.

“One way or another, in the 21st century, China and its neighbors will determine what the resumption of Asian leadership in more and more fields of human endeavor means for an emerging post-industrial world, including for Americans,” Freeman wrote in 2007 in the online magazine The Globalist. “Despite the challenges of doing so, we have ample reason to try to understand China and other Asian countries as they are, not as our politicians and pundits prefer to depict them.”

This open, non-judgmental determination to understand the perspectives of others is, in many ways, what the Camden Conference is all about. But in today’s polarized political climate, it can also be a recipe for trouble.

Freeman’s insight into the mores and motivations of Asia, the Middle East and other parts of the world is so unusual and so keen that it gained him an appointment in 2009 by the incoming administration of President Barack Obama to the chairmanship of the National Intelligence Council, which compiles the closely watched National Intelligence Estimates. But under fire from critics, he eventually withdrew his name for consideration for that post.

For information on the full conference and numerous community events being held across Midcoast Maine and as far Down East as Bar Harbor, see the website www.camdenconference.org or call 236-1034.