Who's Acting Wisely, Who's Not

Times columnist Tom Plate teaches at UCLA

One thing absolutely is certain about the economic uncertainty in Asia: History will deal harshly with those leaders who fail to meet the challenge of working together to return the region to economic health. And even now, with the resolution of the crisis in doubt, it's starting to become clear who the real leaders are.

It's ethnocentric of me, I know, to begin my list of contributors versus spoilers with an American, but Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan Greenspan, with steely nerve and Zen-like calm (on the surface, at least), tends to strike the right notes at the right time. His quiet but firm call last week for international financial reform to prevent a "third crisis" (after Mexico in 1995 and Asia in 1997) was the warning of the schoolmaster trying to get an unruly class' attention. The kind of "visceral, engulfing fear" that triggers "massive disengagements of investors and declines in Asian currencies" and that have "no tie to reality" are grave dangers to world order, he proclaimed.

Leadership is not doing what has been done before, but rather imagining what can or must be done now. Singapore Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong, no doubt with Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew hovering nearby, whispering advice, deserves recognition for trying to lead. But he probably won't get that soon from Americans: We tend to dismiss Singapore, with its tiny population of 3.4 million, as little more than a caldron of caning, not caring. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), though, has developed a keen appreciation for the regional role of the island city-state. She told me: "Singapore has been remarkable. It is probably showing more leadership per capita than any of us." Certainly, those closer to the scene appreciate Singapore's helping out imperiled Asian nations with timely multibillion-dollar loans and investments. "It is no longer possible nor right for us to close our eyes or fold our arms and ignore the problems of our neighbors," Goh said recently.

If only the Japanese would take the cue from Singapore and conceptualize policy more regionally, then all of Asia, not to mention the rest of the world, could breathe more easily. Alas, Japan, bogged down in a swamp economy despite its great national wealth and stunning achievements, is losing relative stature in this crisis to rival China. Under strong-willed financial czar Zhu Rongji, China has been trying to show more regional empathy. Japanese Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto is perhaps not so much the problem as Japan's snarly, gnarly political system. Commented IMF Managing Director Michel Camdessus: "It is clear that we will only get past the Asian crisis and the world will only move to ordered, strong growth when Japan improves." Hypercritical MIT economist Rudi Dornbusch advises Asian leaders to "get the message and tell Japan: Shape up and start being part of the solution rather than complicating the problem." In some multinational setting, so that the Japanese are not seen to lose face, President Clinton needs to have a serious one-on-one with Hashimoto.

Japan, believes Dornbusch, is flirting with bankruptcy and "in financial terms, Indonesia looks good compared to Japan." Hardly anything could be better calculated to get Tokyo's dander up than throwing in its face Indonesia, a patched-together nation of 13,677 islands that may be coming apart at its artificial seams. In fact, the Japanese, ever the realists, are writing this neighbor off. "The Japanese think Indonesia is gone and will collapse," a U.S. official says, even though they accept as predictable and pragmatic the Clinton administration's decision to stand by Suharto, Indonesia's boss for the past 32 years.

With the Asia issue generally, the Clinton administration faces more headaches to endure than opportunities to shine, especially on Capitol Hill, which sometimes just wishes Asia would go away. One of the few islands of sanity is Rep. Doug Bereuter (R-Neb.). A few years ago, he probably knew no more about the region than the average American, but today, as chairman of the influential House Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific, he's an increasingly respected big-time player. "This is Asia's greatest crisis since World War II," comments a top Asian diplomat. "Fortunately, America has someone like Bereuter in such a key job who works hard, actually listens to Asians and cares deeply about America's role in the region." However long the Asian crisis lasts, when it is over, Americans like Bereuter will have earned respect abroad and at home for rising to the occasion. In a crisis, the world cares not who's Republican or Democrat or who's an Asian or non-Asian, but rather who's the problem-solver and who's just not up to the challenge. And the world sometimes has a long memory.


Times columnist Tom Plate teaches at UCLA. E- mail: tplate@ucla.edu

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