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By Alan Boyd

SYDNEY, Australia (May 24, 2001 – Asia Times Online)---Just over 12 months ago, Washington raised a few eyebrows by embracing Beijing in direct security dialogue for the first time, in the assumption that diplomats would be more adept than generals at sweeping away the cobwebs of lingering Cold War suspicion.

The idea of engaging China had been gaining support in academic circles since the early 1990s, when the United States defied the prevailing economic and political undercurrents and began running down its Asia-Pacific military commitment.

Now the mood has swung the other way, and Asia is again on the diplomatic map; but Washington still isn't sure how to respond.

Economic instability, the nuclear threat in South Asia, missile tests in North Korea and the possible disintegration of Indonesia all demand a cogent security package from the last remaining superpower. Yet the engagement strategy has become little more than a temporary tourniquet for a hemorrhaging doctrine that is beset by policy contradictions and cultural pitfalls.

When Bill Clinton tried in 1996 to enlist Japan into a NATO-type defense arrangement as a counter to Chinese regional ambitions, he was mystified by the hostile reaction of neighboring countries to his good intentions.

South Korea and Australia stayed in the frame, but the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) dropped out. This was despite breakneck economic growth that triggered an inevitable upsurge in defense spending - more than the combined expenditure of all European nations in 1985 - and in territorial disputes.

How to keep the faith with the rest of Asia? In its next masterstroke, Washington announced that it would act as a counterbalance to both Japan and China, while maintaining its special relationship with Tokyo.

China moved to the foreground in this muddled equation with the engagement scenario, which works on the solid principle that tensions can be more easily dispersed if one has reliable channels of communication.

While few would dispute this premise, it can only work if the dialogue partners are engaging as equals, and without ideological baggage. But on the evidence so far, that simply hasn't happened.

Right from the start there was a problem of interpretation. Where the United States saw homespun ideals of peace and development, China saw American military containment and economic hegemony.

What was on offer, from the Chinese perspective, was not so much a partnership as a suzerainty, a convenience that could be abandoned when it had ceased to suit Washington's strategic aims.

Beijing noted that both countries were already members of the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), a regional talk shop that, for all of its political impotence, is well regarded by Asian states because it requires that all members participate as equals.

As long as China uses this channel to dissipate regional concerns over its intentions in the Spratlys and elsewhere, it could be said that the U.S. initiative is working.

Even while the Hainan spy plane incident was unraveling, Chinese military personnel were enrolled in a U.S.-sponsored security studies institute. And senior officers are observing the Cobra Gold defense exercises in Thailand, along with their Western counterparts.

But at another level, the engagement philosophy has clearly failed. While Washington talks of the need to prick security boils before they become infected, Beijing is quietly rubbing new sores in the South Pacific, one of the newest diplomatic anvils.

In the past year or so China has channeled hundreds of millions of dollars into tropical atolls such as Fiji, Vanuatu, the Solomons and the Papuan archipelago, with no apparent desire to see any economic return.

Papua-New Guinea, usually considered to be under Australia's security umbrella, has alone accepted US$ 150 million in direct aid and millions more in military assistance.

Vanuatu was reportedly offered $200 million to build up its economic base. Several other states are considering exchanges of military personnel and defense training programs.

One common denominator in these countries is that all have witnessed political upheavals that had wider security implications.

Fiji's government has effectively been paralyzed since a coup attempt. Vanuatu was torn by a brief - and farcical - civil war in 1978, after 70 years of shared colonial jurisdiction between Britain and France.

The Solomons has seen intermittent tribal warfare, while New Guinea has grappled with an army insurrection and a long-running highlands dispute that shut down its main mining concession.

Additionally, all are client states of aid agencies with a large degree of U.S. influence, such as the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and International Monetary Fund (IMF).

Whether or not China is engaged in a deliberate attempt to counter this influence, it has certainly benefited from the outpouring of political resentments that invariably seem to accompany tied assistance.

Former Vanuatu Prime Minister Barak Sope was an outspoken critic of U.S. policies in the Pacific, flirting with Fidel Castro and a gaggle of minor communist functionaries. Last month, his government collapsed after a domestic political crisis that he charges was started by Australia and the U.S. These countries were also blamed for an economic embargo on Fiji that has forced political leaders to push for a return to democracy.

China's clout has traditionally been weak in the Pacific, as was evident when it failed to prevent the United Nations from dispatching peacekeeping troops to East Timor.

Its island hopping in neighboring states suggests that Beijing has tired of being the junior partner in regional diplomacy, engagement policy or not.

©2001 Asia Times Online Co, Ltd. All rights reserved.

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