Clinton's Trip to Asia Signals Shift in Presidential Priorities

US and China, long snappish, now try to emphasize the positive

For someone who didn't talk much about the rest of the world while running for reelection, President Clinton suddenly seems to be spending lots of time on foreign policy.

First he tentatively decided to send US peacekeeping troops to Zaire and keep them in Bosnia. Now, with the rest of official Washington still resting from campaign labors, Mr. Clinton's off on a long trip to a part of the world where he'll face major challenges during the next four years: Asia.

From trade relations with China to the tempestuous face-off between North and South Korea to human-rights problems in Indonesia, Asia is replete with agenda items that will continue to cause long hours for the US National Security Council.

When he took office four years ago, Clinton promised to pay more attention to Asia than his immediate predecessors did. Whether he has is open to interpretation, but administration officials vow that he'll redouble his efforts this time around. "For this president, elevating our engagement with an Asia that is emerging in importance has been a priority," said deputy national security adviser Sandy Berger. "And it will be, I believe, of even greater importance in his second term."

China is likely to be the recipient of much of this increased attention. Following several years of snappish relations, both the US and Beijing now seem interested in emphasizing the positive and finding ways to manage the negative.

A series of high-level Sino-American exchanges is tentatively set for the next 18 months. This week, Clinton will meet Chinese President Jiang Zemin in the Philippines in what could be a precursor to official announcement of these trips.

"Nineteen ninety-seven will be the most active year in US-China relations in the Clinton administration," said State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns last week.

Clinton's Asia swing begins when he lands in Australia today. In Canberra, he'll address both houses of parliament of an ally with whom the US shares many cultural and economic ties.

Australia's new conservative government has pledged to reinvigorate Washington ties. A possible wild-card issue: China has griped that US-Australian defense cooperation is part of a "containment" policy similar to that used by the US against the Soviet Union in the cold war.

On Sunday, Clinton will proceed to the Philippines for next week's summit of Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum leaders, which will talk about the group's plan to lower trade barriers in the region by 2020. Back in 1993, Clinton was instrumental in raising APEC from a foreign ministers' chat group to a meeting ground for heads of state, boast administration officials. They say it's becoming something of a regional version of the G-7 summits: a time for national leaders to get together and talk about whatever is on their minds.

In that regard, Clinton's bilateral meetings - not APEC's announced agenda - are likely to be the most important part of his trip. Besides China's Jiang Zemin, Japan's Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto and South Korean President Kim Young Sam will be on Clinton's Manila dance card.

SOUTH Korea, in fact, is likely the administration's current No. 2 Asia priority. Multiparty peace talks with North Korea remain stalled. The US wants to get them going again, the better to insure Pyongyang's nuclear program remains under control.

The recent strange North-South confrontation sparked by discovery of a North Korean spy sub in South Korean waters has made things much more difficult, according to US officials. While they are urging that South Korea keep its eye on the important diplomatic gains to be made, "we think some gestures by the North are required here in order for us to move ahead," said Assistant Secretary of State Winston Lord in a pre-trip briefing for reporters.

Following APEC, Clinton will swing through Thailand, then return home for Thanksgiving.

Whatever happens on this trip, China seems certain to be the focus of US interest in the region for some time to come. Diplomats say that both countries have good reason to try to manage their relationship better. China, for its part, needs better relations with the West to ensure the continuation of its economic explosion. In particular, Beijing officials still want to join the World Trade Organization - and for them the US holds the WTO key.

The US now realizes that China, not Japan, may be its most formidable economic competition in the East. If current trends hold, next year China will surpass Japan as the single largest source of the US trade deficit.

Candidate Clinton's 1992 rhetoric about Bush administration "coddling of dictators" in China has disappeared. But officials still complain about Chinese hostility. "The mood and attitude in China is very difficult to deal with," said Winston Lord.

"There is a growing nationalism....they have, in some quarters, some suspicions of US intentions. President Jiang's status as head of a collective leadership makes it difficult to predict the course of Chinese power.

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