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Thursday, May 27, 2004

What Asians tend to think of America

LOS ANGELES -- Asia -- home to something like 60 percent of the earth's people -- is a vast multitude of ethnicities, nationalities, religions and cultures.

Even so, since they have some objective distance on the United States and at the same time an intense interest in what happens here, they tend to form overall impressions about us that are widely shared. Based on my years of traveling to Asia and writing this column, here are a few of them:

1. Asians do not hate Americans. Many wish us the best. But they do resent our bigmouthed, big-footed ways, our arrogance and our tendency to make decisions (like Iraq) without consulting them -- and then pressuring them to send troops or write out supportive checks afterward. Right now, our president is not popular in the region, but that could always change, especially if there's a settlement of the North Korean tension, a U.S.-brokered calming across the Taiwan Strait and a clear exit strategy for Iraq.

2. They do not generally think of us as a menacing hegemony, but rather as an overgrown busybody, poking our nose unnecessarily into others' business. Asians take a different life-view (i.e., one should mind one's own business), but they pretty much have given up on America's ability to do that. Their general attitude is resignation rather than condemnation.

3. Asians view America's missteps in Iraq more in sadness than in anger. Many feel we shouldn't have gone in, but once in we should have gotten right out and let the United Nations take over, making Iraq's future a collective responsibility. As U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell reputedly said, when you invade a country, you can wind up owning it. Ownership is not exactly an exit strategy.

4. Asians are beginning to wonder when Americans will wake up and decide that their current president is not exactly a John F. Kennedy. Polls in the region show a higher level of negativity toward Bush than America in general, a judgment reached well before the Iraq prison abuse scandal.

5. Four more years of Bush or not, Asians still believe in us long term.

Asians generally think that one key to the world's economic and strategic stability is a sensible and secure Sino-U.S. relationship, and Bush should be given credit for mostly achieving that. What he needs to do next -- and urgently -- is to develop a similarly sensible relationship with the Islamic world.

6. In fact, Asians mostly think the U.S. needs to keep a tighter watch over Japan than China. America is a culture of forgetfulness; Asia is a culture that never forgets. Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, returning from North Korea on his second mission there, is often viewed as brilliant, but his nationalism worries Asians more than China's military buildup. This may not be rational, much less fair; but it is a fact.

7. Asians still think we have the best universities, even as it is harder now to get visas to enter them. Maybe the saddest unintended consequence of the homeland security measures in the U.S. is Mother Liberty flashing a stop sign in the face of young Asians wanting to school here. Asian moms and dads are getting antsy about whether their children will be able to get into Harvard and Princeton or Stanford and UCLA. Be patient, Asia: We won't always be so uptight with our visas. This, too, shall pass.

8. Asians may have figured out Bush, but they don't know what to make of his likely opponent for the presidency, John Kerry. While there are countless Bush-bashing Web sites created by Asians, Kerry remains an enigma. Truth is, dear Asian friends, he's also a bit of an enigma on this side of the Pacific. One thing to worry about: Kerry will need the trade unions to win the election, and that could result in a more protectionist America should Bush go down. Protectionism is not good for Asia, or for anyone.

9. Asians tend to admire American women, especially its career women. Asian women note, with envy and admiration, that their U.S. counterparts somehow manage to have it all, with a knack for balancing family and career. (Feminist note: Sen. Hillary Clinton is practically an iconic figure in Asia, admired for her intellect, strength of character and saintly forbearance with Bill.)

10. Finally, Asians are scared about the shaky U.S. dollar. Why? Having suffered through a regional financial crisis (1997-99), they have no appetite for another. But Washington is running up a huge federal deficit, and so Asians (giants like China and Japan as well as small nations like Singapore) keep buying U.S. Treasury bills as fast as they can. But how long can this U.S. spending spree go on before the world economy takes a huge dive? Even an increasingly affluent Asia can't endlessly supply cash to finance U.S. spending habits. This is probably Asia's biggest single current worry about America.

UCLA professor Tom Plate, a member of the Pacific Council on Foreign Policy, is founder of the Asia Pacific Media Network. Copyright 2004 Tom Plate

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