Just how differently will the United States behave toward Asia under President Reagan? In what may or may not be a glimpse of changes to come, a Reagan adviser who toured the region last week stressed the need for:
*Upgrading US relations with Taiwan -- including the sending of a special presidential envoy to Taipei, the capital.
*Boosting US military power in the Pacific.
* Slowing the process of improving relations with Vietnam.
* Shaping a more predictable policy toward the region by firming up US commitments to consult with and defend tis Southeast Asian "friends," especially Thailand.
The whirlwind tour by Georgetown University professor Ray Cline to Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, and Taiwan kept government leaders from Moscow to Tokyo busy trying to sort out the incoming administration's foreign policy puzzle.
The affable, bearded professor repeatedly denied that he spoke for the Reagan administration. He insisted that his "private" fact-finding mission was planned before the Reagan landslide. But speculation that he may be appointed assistant secretary of state for East Asian affairs has given prominence to his personal views and statements of what the new administration should or might do.
Professor Cline, a former deputy director of intelligence in the CIA, was long a leading opponent of normalizing relations with China. Now he favors improving US relations with Taiwan (which, theoretically, has only unofficial ties with the United States).
Unlike some specialists who stress the dispute between China and the Soviet Union, Dr. Cline sees China as part of a threatening totalitarian communist world dominating the Asian heartland.
The United States, he argues, should not "play the China card" against the Soviet Union by building it up militarily and economically; China is far too weak to be an effective militarily ally against the Soviet Union. There is no substitute for strengthening America's own military power to counter the Soviet Union, according to Dr. Cline, who says that most but not all of Mr. Reagan's advisers agree on this point.
While his views point toward a cooling of the US-China economic and political climate, he says he favors continued economic contacts and encouragement to "civilize" China's behavior. China should be helped to look toward the West and capitalistic methods, rather than to the Soviet Union, to modernize. It should also be prodded to refrain from supporting insurgents in Southeast Asia or to use force against Taiwan.
In another area, Dr. Cline suggested that efforts to negotiate with Vietnam be slowed down. He advocates fewer active proposals such as those carried out under President Carter by Assistant Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke.
He maintains the Us aim should be to sit back and wait, encouraging Vietnam over the long run to avoid dependence on the soviet Union.
Unlike what he described as the Holbrooke approach, US policy toward Vietnam should be seen to be guided more by involvement in the area than by what has become an impression disengagement.
According to Dr. Cline, countries like Thailand and Malaysia felt they "did not register on the scoreboard" under the Carter administration. Southeast Asia countries were unsure of US priorities and were not consulted often enough.
Now they are looking for predictability -- a sense that the US will keep its commitments and an accurate assessment of just what US military strength and strategic planning in the area will bring.
Dr. Cline also maintains that growing Soviet naval power in the Pacific and the Vietnamese-Soviet presence in Cambodia have threatened to intimidate Southeast Asian countries, especially Thailand. He expressed hope that a two-to-three year program of building up US air and sea power in the region will reassure these countries and counter the Soviet presence.
Under President Reagan it should be made clear the United States wil firmly back Thailand against a Vietnamese attack, he said.
Dr. Cline expressed hope that members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Indonesia) might be able to help bring about a political compromise in Cambodia similar to that achieved in Zimbabwe in Africa. He suggested that the United States might stand on the sidelines and let ASEAN take the initiative.
Under this approach, "third force" leaders backed by neither China nor Vietnam might compete in free Cambodian elections supervised by independent observers. Cambodia could be isolated from the two countries if an independent government emerged. Dr. Cline conceded Vietnam would have to agree to such an approach, which so far it has refused to do.