IN its early days, the Clinton administration's foreign-policy team has been preoccupied with Africa (Somalia) and Europe (Bosnia, Russia), while keeping a wary eye on the Middle East (Iraq, the Palestinians).
These are worthy preoccupations that the United States cannot, and should not, ignore. But these are also areas of ancient feuds, seemingly immovable forces, and sometimes stagnant economies.
The area overseas of most extraordinary change, hope, and opportunity for the Clinton presidency is Asia.
It is an area of dynamic economic growth - the "pulsing engine of the entire world economy," as Alvin Toffler puts it. It is already a far more important trading area for the US than Europe. Pacific trade may be double Atlantic trade by the 21st century. But it is an area of political contradiction. On the democratic side of the slate are such countries as Japan and India, along with those like South Korea, the Philippines, and Taiwan, which have made dramatic strides in the struggle for liberty.
It is also a region harboring some of the most repressive regimes in the world: China, North Korea, Burma and Vietnam, for instance, made the Freedom House's latest list of the world's 12 worst-rated countries in terms of freedom. While much of Asia booms and embraces the political reforms that generally go hand-in-hand with free-market economies, more than a billion Asians remain unfree.
Though Asia's ultimate direction must lie with the peoples of Asia themselves, the US has an extraordinary opportunity to help influence that direction in a positive way.
There are four major potential players in the development of Asia: the US, the former Soviet Union, Japan, and China. The US is by far the most attractive to most of the smaller Asian nations. Of the other three, the former Soviet Union is exhausted, in turmoil, and for now has turned inward; Japan remains suspect in the wake of its history of aggression and expansionism; China, now busily modernizing its military and preparing to project its might, is an uncertain and disquieting power.
What must the Clinton administration do? First it must signal its commitment to Asia. It should hasten the official installation of its Asian team, headed at the State Department by the seasoned former ambassador to Beijing, Winston Lord. The president should make an early visit to Japan and other Asian countries.
In trade, military presence, and the fostering of freedom, the US must make clear that it is a Pacific power of determination and significance. If ever there was an area for which President Clinton could express his sense of vision, it is Asia.
Despite the pressures on the defense budget, the US should be cautious in drawing down its Asian military presence. For example, if American troop strength in South Korea is to be cut, it should not be offered up - as in the Carter administration - without a quid pro quo. North Korea, brazenly disguising its nuclear- weapons program from international inspectors, should pledge some commitment to peace and civility.
Clearly American trade imbalances with Japan and China must be corrected. But it is probably time, even though some Americans may resent it, to establish trade with Vietnam before the Japanese and other Asian traders have tied up the market.
China, wracked by the contradiction between a burgeoning free-market economy in the south and tight-fisted political control in Beijing, needs to be drawn into Asia's orbit of reform and progress.
The US can be a crucial factor, balancing its trade leverage over China with pressure for movement on human rights. The US can also be a protective influence in Hong Kong, whose people are to come under Beijing's rule in 1997.
It is time, despite the Clinton administration's other foreign-policy involvements, for it to declare its interest in Asia, formulate imaginative policies, and start implementing them.