MAYBE President Clinton was relieved that Emperor Akihito, leader of Japan in name only, isn't allowed to talk serious politics. That means conversation during the Emperor's White House visit this week could be limited to safe topics: saxophones (Mr. Clinton's interest), the science of fish (the emperor's), and the collapse of the Boston Red Sox baseball team (inevitable).
Actually, Asia is an area of the world that has caused the US administration considerable problems. Late last year, Clinton stood with Asian leaders in Seattle and promised a ``New Pacific Community'' of trade and friendship. Since then, missteps and strain have mostly characterized United States-Asian relations.
In recent weeks the US has launched a kind of Asia diplomatic offensive, centered on renewal of China's favored trade status, opening of a diplomatic office in Vietnam, and a more low-key approach to trade talks with Japan. But Asian nations may still be reserving judgment on current US leadership qualities.
``Recently the US style in Asia has changed under pressure of deadlines,'' says Dr. Charles Morrison, director of the East-West Center's program on international economics and politics. ``But there is still a great deal of doubt in the region as to whether this represents a permanent shift.''
The bellicose nature of US diplomacy in Asia has been a continuing problem. In May the State Department's top Asia hand, Assistant Secretary of State Winston Lord, warned in a letter to his boss, Secretary of State Warren Christopher, of a ``malaise'' fed by open disputes with Japan over trade, and with China, Indonesia, and other nations over human rights.
Loud US criticism brought little change in Asian policies. The best example in that regard might be Clinton's appeal to Singapore to refrain from caning a US teenager convicted of vandalism. The youth was caned anyway, and Singapore slapped back with barbs about American social problems.
The new approach in US-Asian relations may be quieter. The administration promises that it will still raise human rights issues with China - it just won't link human rights progress with continued trade.
But critics worry that the Clinton administration hasn't yet learned that Asia as a whole must be approached differently from other parts of the world. Face, style, and patience are important, as is comprehensiveness.
``We haven't really had an Asia policy with a capital `A','' says James Reardon-Anderson, director of Asia studies at Georgetown University. ``The whole has been less than the sum of its parts.''
If there had been an overall policy, claims Dr. Reardon-Anderson, there would have been more emphasis last year on building a consensus in the region for action on its most important problem: North Korea's continued defiance of nuclear inspectors. The US would not have risked alienating Japan and China over trade when it needed their help for any concerted action against the Pyongyang regime.
US dealings with North Korea, per se, have been far from bellicose. There has been a effort to lure the North into the world community with carrots of aid and recognition.
While some score the Clinton team too soft on the issue, the US approach has reflected the challenge that the world has few means of influence on an essentially isolated nation.
Now the US must reach a consensus on action with South Korea, Japan, and China - nations that are normally suspicious of each other, not to mention the US. ``The administration,'' says one Asian diplomat diplomatically, ``is doing its best.''