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.