International affairs are like auto repairs: The squeaky wheel usually gets the grease. In today's world, most of the headlines and diplomatic attention go to Central America, the Middle East, and US-Soviet nuclear weaponry. Now as in the past, it is difficult for a region without evident major problems to compete for the attention of the world's top diplomatic players.
But occasionally the reverse happens, and that is what makes Secretary of State George Shultz's consistent attention to Asia - and his recent trip there - noteworthy. He has not neglected an area in which things, for the most part, are going well for America: As one example, the Asian states that ring the Pacific Basin have replaced Europe as America's largest trading partner.
Through his low-key efforts Secretary Shultz has consolidated existing ties, helped introduce a much more realistic and less emotional American policy toward China, and at the same time successfully reassured Japan that United States support remains strong.
During this month's two-week trip to Southeast Asia, in Indonesia and Malaysia he quietly defended US contacts with China. For some years the two nations, with large Chinese minorities, have been edgy about US-China ties.
In Indonesia he also brought up the touchy issue of East Timor, where widespread human rights violations have occurred at the hands of the invading Indonesians. And in New Zealand he gave breathing room to the new government by promising to keep US nuclear ships out of its waters for a year.
Other secretaries of state have assumed office similarly determined not to ignore the quieter areas of the globe. In the Eisenhower administration, John Foster Dulles began with expectations of devoting his time to developing overall strategies, irrespective of crises. Yet, as he was the first to admit, he wound up having to race like an international firefighter from hot spot to hot spot.
Secretary Shultz, too, has had to deal with his share of attention-getting situations, none of which have been in Asia. Yet he has been able to increase his expertise in Asia, and to strengthen US relations with most of its nations. He deserves appreciation for his efforts and for their results.