Asia Marches to Its Own Drummer

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

Asian governments have certainly made major mistakes with their economies. But what they need most now, besides their own program of internal reform, is a West that doesn’t compound the problems with blunders of political misunderstanding. For example:

* Japan. Foreign Minister Keizo Obuchi has been anointed by Tokyo’s elite to become Japan’s next prime minister, but that isn’t getting him much respect from the West. Forget even the civility of a decent honeymoon period: The Western media have him all but indicted for felony blandness. One report characterized the career politician as having “all the pizazz of cold pizza.” The West is irritated because the ruling Liberal Democratic Party chose Obuchi despite open Western distaste for him. But in Japan, charisma can be a funny thing. This is a country that runs on the slow-burning coals of consensus, not the turbocharged fuel of charisma. Ryutaro Hashimoto, Japan’s latest failed prime minister, had pizazz to burn, but that did little for recession-mired Japan. Fortunately, it looks as if the position of finance minister will go to former Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa, who has publicly identified himself with the cause of speedy economic reform.

Why not give Obuchi a chance? Japan’s system, as Ellis Krauss of the Graduate School of International Relations and Pacific Studies at UC San Diego puts it, is not likely to produce “a Churchill to lead Japan out of the wilderness of its economic problems.” Of course, the West would be happy with even a John Major.

* Taiwan. Another East-West conundrum America sometimes doesn’t get is Taiwan’s tortured relationship with mainland China. Americans need to appreciate that the Taiwanese are absolute geniuses at doing numbers to elicit U.S. public sympathy for their David versus Goliath status. That’s OK: Democracy is a good cause. So, ever since President Clinton’s affirmation in Shanghai last month that U.S. policy was close to the mainland Chinese view of the island’s basic status (that is, it’s not an internationally recognized independent nation), the Taiwanese have been howling that the U.S. president sold them out. Their many admirers in America, especially in Congress, have been echoing that. This is mostly smoke. Just days before Clinton had arrived in China, many Taiwanese told me that their main fear was a written statement by the U.S. president putting any new clarification into writing. Clinton pointedly avoided this, which didn’t make Beijing happy. But apparently it didn’t make Taipei happy, either. So it goes.


* Australia. This increasingly globalized society has been slowly shedding its kangaroo straitjacket, but the West scarcely took notice last week when Foreign Minister Alexander Downer announced yet another Australian contribution to the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization project. This worthy but shaky project is designed to keep North Korea militarily nonnuclear while allowing it to develop peaceful, economically reinvigorating nuclear energy. Over the years, Australia has provided millions to KEDO, even though North Korea is a good bit of ocean away. Distances have a way of shrinking fast when traversed with nuclear-tipped missiles. The timing of Downer’s announcement took pluck, given all the anti-Asian feeling in Australia--epitomized by the likes of rural racist demagogue Pauline Hanson, whose One Nation (i.e., white) Party shocked everyone by copping fully 25% of the vote in a provincial election last month. Even Prime Minister John Howard, who’s so laid back he can make Japan’s Obuchi seem like a sizzler, has finally gone on the counterattack against her. His government needs to figure out a way to outfox the anti-Asian crowd, keep them out of power and maintain the internationalist direction essential to the country’s development.

* China. The West underestimates Beijing’s determination to reform its ways and reach out to the world, notwithstanding the stomach-wrenching downdraft of the economic turmoil. Yes, the reform struggle will be hellish. As MIT’s Edward Steinfeld says in the summer issue of the Washington Quarterly, “The question [for China] is whether the painful measures needed to avert a long-term collapse will themselves prove politically and socially unsustainable in the short term.” So far, says Richardson Lynn, dean of Pepperdine University School of Law--which has embarked on a remarkable program to help Chinese scholars and lawyers to stitch together a new nationwide bankruptcy law--Beijing seems prepared to tough it out: “I’ve seen no evidence that the economic downturn is slowing down China’s desire to reform. If anything, they’re speeding up with a sense of urgency.”

Based on his own recent contacts as head of the Assn. of Pacific Rim Universities, an important new regional organization, USC President Steven Sample draws a picture of a China that seems to have made an irrevocable decision to reach out: “There’s a developing sense in China that there really is a Pacific Rim community and that they should play a role. There’s a growing feeling there about how interdependent all the Asian economies are--that we’re all in this together. The Chinese are hungry for good relationships.” That’s a healthy appetite--one the West should feed, not frustrate.