It is hard to exaggerate the impact President Bill Clinton's forthcoming trip to China could have on Asia. In Beijing, national leaders are pinning high expectations on their hopes of a new era in bilateral relations, with progress on all manner of crucial issues - from the US and Taiwan to China's entry into the World Trade Organisation. Japan is watching to see if a warming of links between Washington and Beijing will affect its position as the principal partner of the United States in Asia. India yesterday stressed that it did not seek confrontation with China, ahead of a summit where its behaviour will be high on the agenda. Other countries in Asia will be affected to varying degrees by the development of the Washington-Beijing relationship. This all contrasts sharply with the way in which the summit is being viewed in the US. Side issues and domestic politics are taking precedence over the impact of the Clinton visit on relations with a region which, despite recent economic setbacks, is still destined to be a world economic powerhouse in the next century. The dispute over whether Mr Clinton should attend a welcoming ceremony in Tiananmen Square is understandable, given the symbolism involved. But that is no excuse for it preoccupying the attention of Congress to the exclusion of more far-reaching matters on the agenda. Worse still is the obscure row over whether the White House connived in allowing a campaign donor to transfer missile secrets to Beijing. That has nothing to do with the upcoming visit. Nor is it nearly as important as the vital matters from which it is distracting attention - such as the instability caused by recent nuclear tests in India and Pakistan and the need for China to stand firm against a yuan devaluation. Washington has not shown real involvement in Asia of late. Its relatively weak response to India's nuclear tests was one reason why Pakistan felt compelled to follow suit. Many Asian leaders also felt insulted by Washington's initially passive response to the financial crises. Too often, policy towards the region is so rudderless that it can be easily blown off course by side issues. But, given Washington's world role, Asia has a right to expect far more from the summit than the US currently appears ready to put on offer.