The Monster Geopolitical Challenge

Times columnist Tom Plate also teaches at UCLA. E-mail:

I admit it, I’m an e-mail junkie. I don’t even mind the pointed jabs, the direct character attacks or the insinuations that I may be an agent of a foreign government. Of course, being human, I also like the praise and support that occasionally wings in via modem from around the world. So, to celebrate the end of 1996, here’s a sampling of some of the most interesting e-mail queries and quibbles and my responses.

Question: Why are you so down on President Clinton’s policy in Asia? If you ask me, he’s doing a good job there.

Answer: Asia, for all its economic value to America as a trading partner and a market for our exports, is the monster geopolitical challenge of the age. For starters, America needs to be doing more than just shaking down rich and connected Asian nationals for campaign cash, or prancing over to Asia once or twice a year for the media event of the moment. The president must demonstrate a greater appreciation of the fact that America’s relations with the three main powers--Japan, China and Korea--are deeply, intrinsically troubled. I’m not saying that every friction is America’s fault, but relationships with each member of this triad are volatile and crucial. And to add to everything, two key Asia-related posts now need to be filled: Assistant Secretary of State Winston Lord, the administration’s top Asia hand, is departing, as has our ambassador to Japan, Walter Mondale. What’s necessary here are appointees who are particularly knowledgeable about Asia in an administration that is anything but.

Q: You seem to think, oddly, that more world trade somehow will keep the world at peace. Isn’t that awfully naive?


A: When nations have significant economic incentives to avoid conflict, the odds for war can go down. War is not good for business unless you’re in the arms business. Future wars may be unavoidable, of course, but world trade is one important factor in reducing appetites for the abrupt suspension of normality. Economic treaties and alliances can reinforce and create incentives to emphasize diplomacy.

Q: I grant you that children in some Asian countries get better test scores than ours, as a group. But so what? Their kids pay a terrible price for those scores.

A: It’s true that Asian children tend to live regimented lives, that their elders deprive them of a lot of the frolic, freedom and carefree play we permit our youngsters. And these societies do pay a price when they find that their work force isn’t sufficiently innovative and creative. Even so, Asian leaders, especially in Japan, Korea and Singapore, work diligently to equip their future workers with the tools to compete. They don’t deceive their young people by telling them they can get Cs and low test scores and still be able to land good jobs; they level, although sometimes brutally, with their youth, right from the start. Good for them: It’s morally wrong to sugarcoat underachievement.

Q: A far-out thought: Would the U.S. ever break with Japan and realign with China, as it did during World War II?


A: Would American public opinion ever accept such a switcheroo? Very doubtful; still, relations with Japan wax and wane with the political wind, depending on how publicly Washington wants to push the latest dispute or how much Japan publicly needs to say no. As for Chinese foreign policy, which is still evolving, it’ll disappoint more than anything else:. The good news is, it’s unlikely to take many risks; the bad news is, it will stay frozen in stale orthodoxy.

Most likely we’ll just slog along, patching things up with Japan, keeping our fingers crossed about China, watching Asia drift away from us.

Q: Why do you bother to write so many columns about Korea? It’s a small, cold country far away. Who cares?

A: We have already fought one war there and lost more than 50,000 lives; 37,000 American troops hang out there now, with not much to do other than wait for another war. If the troops left, you’d probably get a nuclearized Korean peninsula. Which would have the domino effect of rearming and nuclearizing Japan--a truly frightening prospect that would shake all of Asia and the world. The Korean peninsula is thus the world’s leading tinderbox.


On the happier side, South Korea alone is now the world’s 11th- or 12th-largest economy; a successfully united Korea would become Asia’s economic equivalent of Germany. A columnist can never write enough about Korea.

Q: Your work suggests an understanding of Chinese ways and thinking. You must know Mandarin: When and where did you learn it?

A: Alas, like most Americans, I speak no foreign language. Whereas if I had done K-12 in leading Asian countries, I’d be able to answer your question without being so embarrassed. Sorry. No Mandarin spoken here.

Happy New Year, fellow PacRim fans!