The press and Congress have recently been giving much attention to a supposed conspiracy between Beijing and Panama to undermine U.S. strategic interests in the Panama Canal. The theory holds that even as we turn over ownership and control of the canal to Panama, China is positioning itself, with the cooperation of corrupt Panamanians, to control or interfere with canal operations. Supposedly the United States has lost influence because it no longer has forces in the area.

Partly because of this unsubstantiated theorizing, the Carter-Torrijos treaties on the turnover of the canal to Panama are under renewed criticism, and President Clinton may not attend the ceremony in mid-December.

And yet no evidence has been put forward by proponents of the China theory to support it, beyond references to the presence in Panama of a Chinese corporation, Hutchinson-Wampoa. This company supplies port-management services at Panama's Atlantic and Pacific ports, which, it is important to note, are completely outside of and separate from the canal and its entrances. Hutchinson-Wampoa's contract with Panama was signed after hotly disputed bidding, which American and other bidders lost. Although the company is a recognized port-management enterprise, charges of payoffs and links to the Chinese military have been circulating, and these feed the convoluted conspiracy theory.

They don't go far toward explaining it, however. Here's an incident that sheds more light on the situation: Two months ago the new president of Panama, Mireya Moscoso, took office at a formal ceremony in a new baseball stadium in Panama City with thousands in attendance. Seated in places of honor on the platform were the presidents of several countries, among them, Venezuela, Nicaragua and the Republic of China. But the Chinese head of state was not the one who resides in Beijing; he was from Taiwan, because Panama has diplomatic relations with Taiwan, not Beijing.

For those who remember the intense diplomatic struggle between Beijing and Taiwan in the 1960s and '70s, the Panama situation is not as new, strange or special as it has recently been portrayed. In those decades, Beijing successfully dislodged Taiwan from its position in most places as the recognized, legitimate government of China.

Beijing started its campaign at a disadvantage because it did not have the access that comes with diplomatic recognition. So, when it was necessary in Third World nations, Beijing would buy a commercial foothold and cultivate relations based not on diplomatic influence but on economic interests. A Chinese company might bid on a contract or start a trading relationship with a local company.

From that base Beijing worked assiduously to wrest political and diplomatic recognition from Taiwan. The strategy was mostly successful, so that now Taiwan itself must use this same approach. The competition continues to this day, with the payoff often being generous bilateral assistance progrmas.

But Beijing has been unsuccessful in Central America, where the small, poor countries are quite agile at playing Beijing and Taiwan against each other for their own political and economic benefit. Every country in the region recognizes Taiwan now; it is the only part of the world where this is the case. Tension between the two Asian rivals is a fact of diplomatic life in the area.

The only surprise would be if Beijing did not use every possible means to recover its position by undermining Taiwan in Central America. This bitter rivalry, not strategic maneuvers involving the Panama Canal, explains Beijing's interest in Panama.

The United States is indeed at a crossroads in its relations with Panama because of the turnover of the canal. But it would be the height of folly for us to approach the security and stability of the canal and our relations with Panama based on a mistaken interpretation of a Beijing-Taiwan rivalry.

China has no capability to upset America's strategic position in Panama, unless we so mishandle our diplomacy that we undermine ourselves. We have it within our power to determine our future role and presence in the region, provided we are reasoned and set policies based on our long-term interests. This begins with reaffirming our national acceptance that the canal is no longer ours, that the Carter-Torrijos treaties are not in question.

The United States has a history of paying only fitful attention to Latin America. The turnover of the Panama Canal should be marked not by the absence of the president of the United States but by his high-profile presence. After a century of intimate involvement in Panama, we should act with dignity and grace--like a great power, not like a confused giant. Rather than seeing this historic event as simply the end of an American era in Panama, we should use it to reaffirm to all of democratic Latin America that we recognize them as our political and economic partners in a new relationship for the new century. As Panama takes control of the canal, President Clinton should be there alongside other leaders of the hemisphere to wish Panama well.

The writer, a former U.S. special negotiator for Panama, is the president of the Americas Society and the Council of the Americas.