When Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad and Chinese President Jiang Zemin shared a platform in Beijing last week, the message was the fairly predictable one that East Asia stands together and wants nothing but peaceful co-existence with the West. President Jiang denied China was expansionist or a threat to world peace. There was, he said, no China threat and China wanted only dialogue and co-operation. Dr Mahathir, meanwhile, called on the United States not to perceive Asian countries as 'devils' but to work for a stronger and more united World Trade Organisation. It was an echo of his statement to an international audience in Kuala Lumpur 10 days earlier, in which he had warned against any attempts to create an alliance against China or divide East Asia into rival camps. China, he warned, would always be around and could not be wished away. If it was treated as a potential threat, the world would be more hostile. 'Once we treat nations as if they are the enemy of tomorrow, they will rapidly become the enemy of today.' That is not a view of China necessarily shared either by the US or other nations within East Asia. From Washington to Jakarta, governments are treading very cautiously in their relations with Beijing, pursuing 'constructive engagement' on the one hand, but keeping an anxious eye on its behaviour in the Strait of Taiwan and the South China Sea on the other. China has said, and repeated to Dr Mahathir last week, that it wants to settle Southeast Asian nations' competing claims to the Spratly Islands through negotiations. But it has not shown any sign of abandoning its preference for bilateral negotiations instead of the multilateral talks regarded by Malaysia and its Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) partners as an essential defence against Chinese manipulation. One Indonesian academic called in the Far Eastern Economic Review this week for a strategy of 'engagement with assertiveness.' Despite Dr Mahathir's warnings against building up military might for use against each other, Asian nations - including Malaysia - have not entirely avoided a regional arms race. However, the stress in the US is increasingly - and correctly - on the engagement side of the formula, while the assertiveness has at last begun to take more of a back seat. That is all to the good. Dr Mahathir's own anti-Western rhetoric has in the past irritated many of the very people Asia would most like to do business with. But the suspicion - and condescension - with which Western governments, particularly that of the US, have often treated East Asia is equally counter-productive. The sad fact is that there has always been more than a grain of truth in what both sides of the Pacific say about each other and what Asian nations say about their own regional rivalries. Washington does, frequently and often provocatively, try to impose its will on Asia. Its commercial demands are self-interested and derived from mercantilist, protectionist concerns, not from free-trading principles. Some of its business practices, such as demanding Asian compliance with the patents its drug companies take out on products based on traditional Asian treatments, are neo-colonialist. Its projection of naval and military power in the region, particularly since the end of the Cold War, has appeared almost exclusively aimed at China. And, despite its recent more pragmatic approach, the US has frequently tried to use its commercial muscle to alter local attitudes and behaviour. Yet the human rights failures the US objects to in this part of the world are real enough. There is a new generation of Asian politicians, not least Dr Mahathir's own deputy, Anwar Ibrahim, who openly rejects the use of 'Asian values' to excuse and justify breaches of basic human rights and lack of democracy. And, while it may rail publicly against a perceived US policy of 'containment' of China, much of ASEAN is delighted to shelter under the US military umbrella. Dr Mahathir and Mr Jiang, therefore are right. It is wrong to concentrate solely on isolating and demonising China, just as it is unforgivable to condescend to Asia in general. Equally, the US should be content to make its trade policy through the World Trade Organisation rather than through bilateral deals which anger and divide Asia. But it is also reprehensible for Asian leaders to buttress their own worst policies by portraying the US and the West as the enemy. The world depends on co-operation between nations, not hostile rhetoric, for prosperity. Dividing it into competing and ideologically incompatible blocs can lead only to poverty and hostility.