WASHINGTON -- Former President Clinton hasn't allowed being out of office to interfere with his devotion to foreign affairs.
In four months, he has visited the Netherlands, Germany, Denmark, India, South Africa, Nigeria, China, Norway, Sweden and Poland. His successor, President Bush, has gone to Mexico and Canada.
In China, Clinton met with President Jiang Zemin and addressed business groups in Hong Kong and Shanghai. He also emphasized, if unintentionally, the differences between the Clinton and Bush China policy.
''The world will be a better place over the next 50 years if we are partners,'' Clinton told his Hong Kong audience, saying that as president he worked to nurture a ''positive relationship'' with Beijing. ''Getting the China relationship right'' is the key to stability in Asia, Clinton said.
The former president's tone -- and use of the word ''partner'' -- appeared at odds with Bush's harder line and contention that the United States and China are not strategic partners but economic competitors.
Clinton takes care not to criticize Bush's policies directly. ''I think I shouldn't comment on that for a good while yet,'' he said in Oslo, Norway, last week after a speech for which he reportedly was paid $150,000.
So far, the Bush administration has had little to say on Clinton's frequent-flier activity. White House spokesman Ari Fleischer stresses, however, that the Democratic ex-president's travels are ''as a private citizen'' and not as an envoy for the current Republican administration.
Yet in his meeting with Jiang in Hong Kong, Clinton discussed the damaged U.S. surveillance plane that has sat on an airfield on China's Hainan island since landing there April 1 after a collision with a Chinese fighter jet.
In the hour-long meeting on May 9, Clinton ''strongly encouraged him to give the plane back,'' said Sandy Berger, who was Clinton's national security adviser and who keeps in touch with him.
Before going, Clinton made a point of touching base with both Secretary of State Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, Bush's national security adviser, Berger said in an interview.
''I think that President Clinton is very conscious, as he travels around the world, of being supportive of the administration and not conducting foreign policy,'' Berger said.
Clinton should know. He was infuriated by several instances of free-lance diplomacy conducted by former President Jimmy Carter, according to top former aides. These included Carter's announcement that he had nailed down a deal on North Korea's nuclear program with that country's communist leaders during a private visit to Pyongyang in 1994.
Bush's father, former President Bush, also has traveled extensively since leaving the White House in 1993, but has stayed on the diplomatic sidelines.
Ex-presidents ''have to be exceedingly careful not to convey the impression that they have any official capacity. Not all foreign governments recognize the difference,'' said retired Rep. Lee Hamilton, D-Ind., director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center.
Hamilton, a former chairman of the House International Relations Committee, said he is not in favor of a ''gag rule'' but there needs to be clear lines of communication between former and sitting chief executives. ''It has to be handled with delicacy,'' he said.
Nicholas Lardy, a China expert at the Brookings Institution, doubts there is any risk that Chinese leaders mistook Clinton's words for current Bush administration policy. ''I think his audiences understand the differences,'' Lardy said.
Clinton's travel schedule is posing some potential conflicts.
For instance, an African tour by Powell had originally been envisioned for April. But it would have put the secretary of state there at the same time as a high-profile Clinton visit.
Clinton did a town hall meeting in Johannesburg, met with former South African President Nelson Mandela and participated in an AIDS conference in Nigeria. Powell, who also plans to visit South Africa and speak extensively about AIDS, begins his weeklong trip on Tuesday.
Clinton focused on his domestic agenda in his first years in office. But later, under the weight of various scandals, he spent more and more time on diplomacy, trying to advance the peace process for Northern Ireland, the Middle East and on the Korean peninsula.
''For him, time ran out,'' said an admiring Swedish Prime Minister Goeran Persson after he and Clinton lunched last week in Stockholm.
Persson said he and Clinton talked about Europe, Africa, China, India and Bush's plans for a national missile defense. ''So we touched on everything in world politics.''
Later, Clinton continued with a European speaking tour.
In Warsaw, Poland, he was hit by an egg hurled at him by an anti-globalization protester.
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EDITOR'S NOTE -- Tom Raum has written about national and international affairs for The Associated Press since 1973, including five presidencies.
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