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Monday, June 23, 2003

Asia-watcher likes what he sees

LOS ANGELES -- Like the American stock market, the Asian political scene suffers ups and downs. Today, Asia might seem more like a hibernating bear in a China shop than anything else. SARS-hit Hong Kong is experiencing its highest jobless rate in years, China is toying with the idea of a currency devaluation, and those dangerously goofy generals in Yangon have nothing better to do than re-arrest democracy advocate Aung San Suu Kyi, one of Asia's most respected women. And when will the North Koreans ever realize that what they're doing isn't working anymore, and never will?

But Nicholas Platt, one of America's longtime Asia-watchers, remains bullish on Asia. To be sure, he'd better be: He's president of the Asia Society, the worldwide educational nonprofit with headquarters in New York City. But with 34 years as a diplomat under his belt, Platt has been around long enough to sense something blowing in the wind before it becomes a hurricane.

"There's definitely something about Asia that is capturing the public's attention," he said in an exclusive interview on June 18.

As a young foreign-service officer in 1972, he accompanied U.S. President Richard Nixon to China. Today, Platt -- former U.S. ambassador to the Philippines (1987-1991) and Pakistan (1991-1992) -- claims that yet another Republican president is now well within that tradition.

"His people are making more of an effort to understand the Asian neighborhood." No wonder, he says: "The U.S. relationship with Asia today has more potential than the one with Europe. Our relations with Europe are very mature, but those with Asia are relatively new."

Over the decades Platt has seen Asian leaders come and go, but what he sees in Japan and China today he likes.

"Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, in his own way, has outperformed (British Prime Minister) Tony Blair -- especially when you consider the slow-moving Japanese political context and his predecessors. He has already revamped the Office of the Prime Minister and the public's expectations of it. Here's a guy who has more good hair days in a week than most Asian politicians ever have!"

"James Bond" Koizumi or no, Japan will never play the role of a Great Britain in Asia, no matter what the relative merits of its prime ministers.

Not arguing, Platt adds: "But the Chinese will. The trick is to get the Chinese and the Japanese to play together. U.S. policy needs to encourage them to do that. You no longer have to make a choice or need to make a choice (to exclude China because of Japan). You can and must have a good relationship with both." Amen to that!

Chinese leader Hu Jintao plays his cards so close to his vest, as Platt wittily put it, that they're "practically tattooed there." But the bottom line is that "Hu is a reformer -- he has to be. But now the rate of political growth and change has to match the rate of economic growth and change. That won't be easy." It may not even be possible if the Chinese Communist Party holds on to power.

South Asia is less a nuclear accident waiting to happen than a Kashmir settlement that should have occurred long ago. Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee is underestimated: "The Indians have been remarkably supportive by being helpfully quiescent, despite the fact that there are about a billion people in that country who disfavored our Iraq policy," Platt points out.

Pakistan President Gen. Pervez Musharraf is essential, says Platt. "Who else in Pakistan is there besides him? The army is the glue of that country. He's the only bet, the only real card left on the table." Let's hope that card doesn't turns out to be a joker.

In Asia, Platt's far-flung organization has offices in Shanghai, Hong Kong, Manila and Melbourne. In the States, there's New York, Washington, Houston, San Francisco and Los Angeles. But there's nothing in the American Midwest.

Midwesterners must understand, Platt argues, "that the whole world has become one neighborhood, and that you can't stay safe and be safe unless you know your neighborhood real well. There's everyday life and investment and jobs, too. Let's face it -- some of these jobs are going to Asia. We have to figure out what to do about that. That's another reason you have to know your neighborhood."

Wake up, Wisconsin -- get your Asia Society branch started soon!

Platt -- one of America's most seasoned weather vanes on the region -- is something of a sensible-shoes Alan Greenspan in the way he measures out his thoughts. Although he is clearly an Asia enthusiast, no one would ever accuse this thoughtful man of irrational exuberance. "Asia is impinging on people's consciousness," he insists. If he's high on Asia right now, I for one wouldn't bet against him.

Tom Plate is a UCLA professor and director of the nonprofit Asia Pacific Media Network.

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