PRESIDENT Clinton's rockiest ship has undoubtedly been on the waters of foreign affairs. Criticised as an administration with no global foreign policy vision after the end of the certainties of the Cold War, Clinton has vacillated over Bosnia, Somalia and Haiti, and tended to lend credence to claims that he was a politician who felt far morecomfortable with domestic issues. Although the Middle East peace signing ceremony was deemed a White House public relations coup, it was one of only a few rays of light in a dismal year for the United States' standing as a superpower with purpose. One region in which Clinton could not be accused of lacking a vision, however, was Asia. In a speech in Japan during the summer, he even referred to his vision of the Asia Pacific Community, and his staff have made frequent, un-subtle references to the US's change in direction from its previous Eurocentric policy. Clinton was not the first to spot Asia's key role as the economic hub of the 21st century, but he certainly was the first to embrace it so openly. Making freer trade the focus of his Asia campaign, and centring that campaign on expanding the Asia Pacific Economic Co-operation (APEC) group, Mr Clinton has managed to show a benevolent side, while having one eye on the jobs back home that Asian tradewould produce. The US's APEC partners have, of course, recognised this and view the US's overtures with some caution, but that did not stop the Seattle meetings from being one of Mr Clinton's few foreign policy successes. The US's bilateral trade ties have also been improving, not least with Japan. After his media-managed triumph on winning new import concessions from Tokyo, Clinton also expects to see a new trade framework between the two countries finalised by February. The White House is warming to the notion of re-opening ties with Vietnam. HOWEVER, two thorns stick painfully in the President's side - China and North Korea. Having abandoned his 1992 campaign's confrontational tone towards China, Clinton nevertheless allowed his Sino policy to be hijacked by the hardline lobby, to the exclusion of all else. It was, pundits agree, an unmitigated disaster. Having negotiated a successful compromise by renewing China's MFN status with conditions, he watched as State Department officials bombarded Beijing with trade, arms proliferation, and human rights complaints, capped it with sanctions because of alleged M-11 sales to Pakistan, and rounded that off with the embarrassment of the anti-climatic showdown with the ship Yin He and its invisible arms shipment. Recognising that China was not responding to name-calling, officials went into reverse in September and adopted a Comprehensive Re-engagement policy, which they concede has more chance of effecting the human rights progress everyone seeks. Despite strong words in public on the current state of affairs on MFN, Clinton is now thought to be keen to find whatever way he can to renew it in June. His summit with President Jiang Zemin appeared to be more show than substance, and much will now depend on his officials' ability to persuade China to do just enough to satisfy the prickly China-watchers in Congress. If the administration has recognised China as the biggest economic and security issue of the future, North Korea has been its biggest security headache in 1993. It will remain so during 1994. Under pressure from Congress and political analysts to show a tougher hand in tackling Pyongyang's intransigence over its nuclear programme, the President has at the same time been advised about caution by both State and Defence departments, not least because they do not rule out North Korea's willingness to fight. The crisis has come at a time when, after the early foreign policy setbacks, the Clinton administration has settled into a more decisive groove of combining tough talk with behind-the-scenes diplomacy. If that cuts no ice in Pyongyang, the President may find the question of whether to push for sanctions his first tough foreign policy call of the New Year.