Honolulu — "Should I call you General or Mr. Secretary?" asked China's smiling Vice-Chairman Deng Xiaoping. "Either will do," replied Alexander M. Haig Jr., formerly of the US Army and now secretary of state.
The scene was the Great Hall of the People in Peking, where Haig met China's de facto leader for the first time.
But throughout a 27,000-mile swing through Asia and the Pacific, Haig has been looking more and more like a secretary of state and less and less like an Army general.
In a two-week trip that took him to meetings with foreign ministers from eight countries, Haig showed that he is learning the arts of diplomatic give-and-take.
In China, he demonstrated that he could deal with the delicate question of Taiwan in what was described as a polite but firm way. When it came to speaking on the subject in public, Haig for the most part kept his mouth shut.
In the Philippines, Haig spent a good part of his time listening and learning , just as he said he intended to do.
In New Zealand, some of Haig's hosts expected him to confront them with a blunt, hard sell when it came to requesting troop contributions to a Sinai peace-keeping force. This is a controversial issue in both Australia and New Zealand, and Haig seemed to appreciate this.
According to an American diplomat, Haig made his presentation clearly and quietly, without bluster. One much- relieved participant in the talks said, with perhaps a touch of exaggeration, that Haig had shown "exquisite sensitivity" in his low-key appeal for help with the peace-keeping force, which is intended to monitor Israel's withdrawal from Sinai.
Haig has a reputation for being tense, ambitious, and hard-driving. Someone who played tennis with him on the trip said that he plays an aggressive game and tries to hit every ball hard. But Haig also showed on the same trip that he can relax at times and even laugh at himself. In one speech in New Zealand he took note of his reputation for becoming incomprehensible whenever he departed from his prepared text.
Haig's sensitivity is especially notable when it comes to the accusation that what he is doing really amounts to little more than engaging in a one-dimensional, simple-minded campaign to combat the Soviet Union. Throughout his Asia trip, Haig indicated that he was interested in much more than simply reacting to Soviet moves and strengthening military forces.
He paid deference, for example, to the desires of local leaders for economic development. Speaking for an administration that until recently has shown little sympathy for third-world economic problems, Haig declared that the US would be cooperative.
But now begins the hard part of the Haig journey into diplomacy. Can he deliver on what appears to be a pledge to give developing countries a better deal on trade and aid? Can he carry along with him a White House and Congress that seem bent on budget-cutting and the protection of American products?
Decisions on a tin agreement and further American participation in the Law of the Sea conference may tell more about American attitudes toward the developing countries than all of Secretary Haig's rhetoric.
There are questions as well when it comes to China. Can Haig get the Congress -- not to speak of the Commerce Department -- to go along with his plans for the possible sale of military equipment to China? How will he deal with Taiwan's request for an advanced fighter plane?
Taiwan wants such an airplane as a symbol that arms sales to Taiwan will continue despite protests from Peking. Peking wants the US to block the sale of such planes as evidence that the US is sensitive to its concerns.
One thing Haig learned on his just-ended trip is that there are limits to what he can do. If the US sells much in the way of military equipment to China, it could disrupt its friendship with Indonesia and Malaysia, both of which are wary of any strengthening of China's military forces.
Some observers question whether there is much depth to Secretary Haig's view of developments in Asia beyond what he sees as a need to strengthen military forces. They wonder whether his plans might not someday crumble along with unstable regimes stretching from Pakistan to the Philippines.
What seems clear in the meantime is that the man who only a few months ago seemed about to lose his job likes that job and is learning the diplomatic game.
Moreover, he has been accessible to reporters, good humoredly explaining what he had meant to say when they questioned his tendency to turn nouns into verbs and to talk, at times, despite his new diplom atic polish, like a general.