PRESIDENT Clinton's visit to the Pacific-Asian region is a strong beginning in a part of the world that offers more hope than any other for constructive change during his administration.
While Europe is constrained by old traditions and rivalries, and such areas as the Middle East are full of political quicksand for foreign policymakers, it is Asia that is in a ferment of economic and political change.
It is here that Mr. Clinton can make his mark, and with his visit to Japan and South Korea last week, he is off to a good start.
He accomplished at least six significant achievements for US-Asian relations:
1. By visiting Asia, his first foreign trip since his Vancouver summit with President Boris Yeltsin of Russia, he sent a strong, positive signal of US interest in, and attention to, that part of the world.
2. The signal included a convincing declaration of American commitment to keep military forces in the Asia-Pacific region.
To South Koreans, he said: "Our troops will stay here as long as the Korean people want and need us." To other Asian countries he said: "Peace depends upon deterrence ... our commitment to an active military presence remains."
Citing measures the American military has taken in Asia to offset the closing of its big bases in the Philippines, Clinton reassured: "These are not signs of disengagement. These are signs that America intends to stay." These were also signs many Asians were anxious to receive, beset as they are by unhappy memories of Japanese expansionism in the past and uncertainties about Chinese expansionism in the future.
3. Particularly striking was the resolve the president displayed to prevent North Korea from building nuclear weapons. "It is pointless," he said, "for them to try to develop nuclear weapons." Then he delivered a chilling warning: "If they ever use them, it would be the end of their country."
This resolve is particularly reassuring to such countries as South Korea and Japan, which are in the first line of fire from North Korea.
But it also relevant to countries that may be targeted by third countries to which North Korea is willing to sell its rocketry. Coming instantly to mind is Israel, easily hit by North Korean missiles sold to Iran.
4. In tandem with his trip, Clinton announced a relaxation of United States pressure on Vietnam.
By permitting the Vietnamese to wipe out their debt to the International Monetary Fund, the US gave the green light to the resumption of multilateral aid. Although the US embargo on trade and investment remains for the moment, this is another signal of constructive American involvement in Asia.
5. So, too, was the announcement of a "new Pacific community" built on "shared strength, shared prosperity, and a shared commitment to democratic values." Just what exactly Clinton intends has yet to be spelled out. But clearly a "regional security dialogue," perhaps leading to a pact or pacts, is part of the presidential vision.
Clinton was emphatic that such a move would be no pretext for US withdrawal, but a supplement to existing alliances and the American military presence in Asia and the Pacific. Time and again he reassured Asians that America's global leadership is not waning, "as some in America fear," but that America's global leadership has "never been a more indispensable or a more worthwhile investment for us."
6. Finally, he underscored US commitment to the spread of democracy throughout the Asian Pacific. "Democracies," he said, "make better neighbors. They do not wage war on each other, practice terrorism, generate refugees, or traffic in drugs and outlawed weapons."
Some of the non-democracies the president must have had in mind as targets are North Korea, China, Vietnam, Laos and Burma.
But whatever their respective ideologies, few nations in Asia and the Pacific could have failed to take note of Clinton's striking declaration of involvement in the region.