WHEN President Reagan lands in China Thursday he will be the third incumbent United States President to visit that nation - the world's most populous country. Some Americans will tend to perceive the six-day visit just in terms of the two nations. But what should also be understood is that the Reagan trip is in a sense far more than that. It is a symbol of increasing US ties - in trade, diplomacy, and culture - with Asia in general.
The growing US-Asian connection merits far greater public discussion and awareness than it has received. The importance of the political and diplomatic links with Asia have not gone entirely unnoticed since World War II. In fact, the last two military conflicts in which the United States was a combatant - the Korean war and Vietnam - both occurred on the Asian mainland. But what needs far greater public recognition is that the US now conducts more commerce with Asia as a whole than it does with Western Europe, America's traditional trading partner. Many economists believe that the most promising trading region for the US in the decades ahead will be found in the Pacific - further altering America's traditional ties to Europe.
In fact, many economists believe conditions are now in place in Asia for significant economic growth during the next two decades. What conditions? A high regard for entrepreneurship, low wage rates, a high savings rate, and rising levels of education.
The crucial historical shift in US trading patterns - from Europe to Asia - has long-range implications for all Americans.
* Traditionally, where US trade has gone, so too has gone the flag - in terms of US strategic commitments.
* And there are profound cultural and social implications in such matters as the Asian regard for the beauty of land and nature - a cultural practice that could prove beneficial to a US society that has tended to look upon land, forest , and water as elements to be exploited for their resources. Further, traditional Asian societies place far greater importance on the family unit than does the more fragmented American family.
The turning point regarding trade occurred in 1980. That year, the volume of commerce between the US and 21 Pacific Rim nations surpassed American trade with Western Europe. By 1983, the total US-Asian trade was 24 percent larger than trade with Western Europe.
In 1983, US trade with the Pacific Rim countries was $133 billion. With Western Europe, it was $104 billion.
The US, of course, would be remiss in ignoring its European trade now that commercial patterns have shifted toward the Orient. Indeed, the US maintains a large trade deficit with Asia - buying more items, mainly manufactured goods, than it sells. And its exports to Asia are mainly raw materials - farm products and natural resources such as forest products and coal.
The US, by contrast, posts manufacturing trade surpluses with Western Europe. Moreover, now that the European economies are coming back after their recessionary slump, possibilities for continued sales of manufactured goods to Europe should be promising.
And, of course, millions of Americans still have family ties to Europe. US corporations have subsidiaries there. Finally, the US has important historical and cultural links with Europe.