THE road ahead for the United States in East Asia appears to have some historic turns. The challenge may be how to do more with less - as America's post-World War II military and economic preeminence in Asia continues to recede.
Tighter US defense budgets and question marks over budget deficits and the strength of the dollar coincide with major changes in Asia itself. Perhaps the most dramatic change is the likelihood that the US can no longer count on China as an ally against the Soviets.
Ties between China and the Soviet Union should strengthen if the announced Soviet military withdrawal from Afghanistan and planned Vietnamese military withdrawal from Cambodia go forward. China has demanded these moves as a condition for improved relations.
The long confrontation between China and the USSR has been a windfall for the US, since it has tied down thousands of Soviet troops on the eastern border. These troops were unavailable for deployment in Eastern Europe or other parts of Asia.
One sign of movement: Chinese Foreign Minister Qian Qichen flew to Moscow for three days of talks with his Soviet counterpart, Eduard Shevardnadze, on Dec. 1. A Peking summit between Mikhail Gorbachev and Deng Xiaoping is expected sometime next year if there is progress on a timetable for Vietnamese withdrawal from Cambodia. There has been no such summit since Nikita Khrushchev met Mao Tse-tung in 1959.
Another sign of change was the signing of a border treaty by China and Soviet-aligned Mongolia on Nov. 28. This agreement provides a model for future pacts governing other parts of the Chinese-Soviet border.
Apart from a Chinese-Soviet thaw, the US faces other challenges in Asia, such as a growing nationalist opposition to the presence of US forces in South Korea and the Philippines.
These most solid of US allies are not about to throw the Yankees out. But the US will have to move delicately to inhibit the spread of the anti-American feeling that emerged among some South Korean students in the aftermath of this year's Olympic Games.
At a time of budgetary austerity, Washington will have to think twice if the Philippines escalates its demands on base fees. The alternative of an expensive relocation of the bases to the South Pacific or Australia may also be unappealing.
Even if anti-American nationalism does not grow stronger in the Philippines, the price tag for US bases there grows. The new assertiveness by President Corazon Aquino on renewal of US base agreements at the Subic Bay Naval Base and Clark Air Base could prove even more costly when this year's agreement to extend the leases expires in 1991. This new agreement already provides $962 billion in aid over two years, up from $180 million a year.
The new US administration must also watch the impact on Vietnam as Moscow and Peking strive to mend fences. If Vietnam continues to withdraw its Army from Cambodia, more countries in Asia and elsewhere will trade and offer aid to Hanoi. There are already signs that Vietnam is breaking out of the isolation the US has tried to impose on it since the Vietnam war ended.
The Philippines and Vietnam agreed Nov. 28 to set up air service between the two countries, along with long-term economic, trade, scientific, technical, and cultural cooperation. The agreements during a visit by Philippines Foreign Secretary Raul Manglapus has been seen as a step toward ending Vietnam's isolation in the region.
Hanging over all this is the growth of Japanese trade, investment, and aid as a central force in Asia - in some ways outshining the US's vast military presence in the air, on land, and at sea.
Japan's presence throughout Southeast Asia, in Taiwan, and in South Korea gives it growing influence, at no real military cost, in places it once sought to dominate by force.
All this makes Asia less predictable and perhaps more difficult to influence at precisely the time American resources are stretched to the limit.
The US can be comfortable with many of these changes if they work to reduce tension. For example: A less dogmatic South Korean government is seeking direct or indirect trade relations with North Korean allies like China and Eastern Europe as one way of inhibiting attack from the north.
Still, the decline of US leadership and tight American budgets will make it harder for the administration of George Bush to solve problems by throwing in fresh money for military or economic support.
The opinion-page column ``For the new administration, a changing road in Asia,'' Dec. 12, stated that the US base agreement in the Philippines provides $962 billion in aid over two years. The actual figure is $962 million.