DURING a whirlwind week in the Far East on his first trip overseas as president, Bill Clinton tried to shift the US role in the region from that of protector to equal partner.
Mr. Clinton demanded more from United States allies in coping with new security dangers and in helping to create more US jobs, while repeating the American ideal that opportunities for trade lie where the US military plants the American flag.
"We have fought three wars here [in the Pacific] in this century," Clinton told South Korea's national assembly on Saturday in a major speech on Asia. "We will not squander that investment."
To secure American interests, the US will remain an "active presence," he said. Such statements during Clinton's diplomatic foray to Tokyo and Seoul were designed to remove doubts in Asia that a Democratic government in Washington might be tempted to reduce its military "forward deployment" to cut costs.
Under President Bush, the US had already begun a gradual reduction of troops in Asia and had given up large naval and air bases in the Philippines.
Asian doubts about Clinton's long-term commitment were raised in May, when US Defense Secretary Les Aspin floated a new war doctrine, known as "win-hold-win."
If this strategy had been adopted by Clinton, it would have reduced the US military to the ability to fight only one regional conflict, while holding another enemy in suspension until the first conflict is finished.
Officials in Seoul were worried that South Korea would be left alone to fend off a North Korean invasion if the US, for instance, were fighting a war in the Mideast. Mr. Aspin has since dropped the "win-hold-win" idea, and he joined Clinton in Seoul to offer assurances of support.
Since the 37,000 US troops in South Korea no longer serve to contain Chinese or Soviet communism, many US soldiers are questioning why their lives are on the line in a dispute essentially between Koreans.
Clinton, citing the Korean peninsula as a "vital" American interest, said US troops will remain "as long as the Korean people want and need us here." In this period of change, he said, the US military presence in the Asia-Pacific is needed mainly to "preserve what has been reliable."
Clinton's visit also served to reassure South Korea that the US will not make concessions to North Korea in talks set to resume in a few days in Geneva, Seoul officials say.
The fact that the US has opened talks with the communist regime in Pyongyang was seen as a concession by Seoul. South Korean President Kim Young Sam criticized the US, saying North Korea was just "buying time" to continue its nuclear-weapons program.
But the US, at the request of China, had opened the talks to persuade the North to remove suspicions about its nuclear program and to stay within the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
In case the North does not allow inspections of its nuclear sites, Clinton and Mr. Kim agreed to use "appropriate countermeasures," which US officials say would not be airstrikes on the nuclear sites, but most likely economic sanctions imposed by the United Nations. Kim said the US and South Korea are now in "close consultation" over North Korean issues, including a time limit for the North to comply.
Clinton promised Kim that the US will back South Korea fully in whatever way the South chooses to eventually reunite with the North peacefully. The South is debating a number of ways to deal with the economic and refugee problems that would result if the Pyongyang regime collapses, as many analysts predict.
One recent idea proposed by the government is to cordon off the North as a separate economy for a decade or so until it reaches the South's level of development. Seoul does not want to follow Germany's woes of reunification.
In a new sign of regional partnership, Clinton reversed a Bush administration decision not to participate in a multilateral Asian dialogue on security. Such talks start in Singapore later this month.
Clinton ruled out any need for a single security alliance, such as in Europe, and said a regional dialogue would not be a pretext for American withdrawal from the area.
"The challenge for the Asia-Pacific [region] in this decade, instead, is to develop multiple new arrangements to meet multiple threats and opportunities," he said.
"These arrangements can function like overlapping plates of armor.... Some new arrangements may involve groups of nations confronting immediate problems. This is the model we pursued to address North Korea's nuclear program," the president stated.
Clinton reminded Asian leaders that the US security arrangements in the region have helped them to focus "less energy on an arms race and more energy on the peaceful race toward economic development...."
And in fact, he cited a "broader" challenge than security concerns: the slow pace of jobs created in the West's industrialized nations.
Clinton traveled to Asia for the Tokyo summit of the G-7 industrialized nations, but he used the occasion to extract agreements from Japan and South Korea to open fresh talks to open their markets.
The US-Korean talks are called "dialogue for economic cooperation," or DEC, and are general in nature.
But the US agreement with Japan, made as Clinton was leaving Tokyo on Saturday, is more binding and more onerous on Japan. Targets will be set for foreign goods and services to penetrate the "closed" Japanese markets.
Clinton also announced in Tokyo that he wants to upgrade a meeting of the new regional group, the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), into an "economic summit." The US is host to the next APEC meeting in Seattle in November.