US Foreign Policy: Inscrutable Asia line: As President prepares to travel to Europe for D-Day ceremony, 'Independent' writers assess his track record

IF ASIA needed an example of the incoherence of American foreign policy, it was supplied a few days ago by President Bill Clinton's climbdown on China's Most Favoured Nation trading status.

Asian governments thought he was right to break the link between trade and human rights, but could not understand why he had insisted on one in the first place. Washington now has to forge a new relationship with Peking in which its interests and ideals are given appropriate weight.

Its desire for China to respect human rights, stop exporting weapons to maverick states and remove barriers on imports will have to be balanced with the country's huge economic potential and the need for Chinese co-operation on many issues, the most obvious being pressure on North Korea to halt its nuclear programme.

A similar exercise is needed with most other Asian nations. Confidence in Washington's ability to establish priorities has not been bolstered by the MFN mess. American spokesmen emphasise the growing importance of Asia in US foreign policy, not least when there is a squabble with Europe. But there has been little attempt to outline a broader vision of relations with east Asia, which many expect to be the world's economic powerhouse in the next century. Instead of a regional approach, there is a patchwork of bilateral ties.

The uncertain state of Washington's relationship with China is echoed in its dealings with its principal Asian ally and the region's economic leader, Japan. The recent agreement to resume trade talks does not imply any progress: it is seen as merely 'resetting the clock' for the next dispute. This limits the ability of the US to cope with North Korea, one of its main foreign policy headaches. But Japan's assertiveness is a symptom of a wider problem for US policy-makers.

Growing economic strength and the end of the Cold War have reduced east Asia's reliance on the US for security. While smaller nations remain nervous of China, that is diminishing as business ties expand. The US will have to deal with an increasingly confident region which attributes its success to 'Asian values' and demands to be treated as an equal.

In south Asia the US is bedevilled by Indian-Pakistani rivalry. Every gesture to one alienates the other. New Delhi is furious at US attempts to repair links with Islamabad by exchanging F-16 planes for nuclear concessions.

India has rebuffed Washington's initiative to reduce nuclear tensions. There has been no US ambassador in New Delhi for more than a year. A replacement has finally been nominated, but the two giant democracies remain far apart on a string of issues.