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Sunday, July 11, 2004

Japan can't compete with a burning Iraq

LOS ANGELES -- Before too long, Asia might get weary of being declared by self-appointed Occidental experts as the new center of the political universe. For one thing, the notion is hardly novel in Asia. But, then again, it might as well enjoy the limelight so long denied this most pivotal region on the face of the Earth.

The latest big-time encomium to the suddenly sighted rise of the East comes from none other than Henry Kissinger. In a recent column, the former U.S. secretary of state declaimed that the "center of gravity of international politics is shifting to Asia." This paean to the embarrassingly obvious comes in the wake of another political papal bull from another high policy cardinal in the inner church of American foreign policy.

Writing in Foreign Affairs, James F. Hoge Jr. opines in the lead article, "A Global Power Shift in the Making": "The transfer of power from West to East is gathering pace and soon will dramatically change the context for dealing with international challenges -- as well as the challenges themselves." Later the article notes: "Asia's rise is just beginning . . ."

Not quite. Hoge, the top editor of America's establishment foreign-policy journal, had made a similar point in his April lecture at Johns Hopkins University's Paul H. Nitze School of International Advanced Studies, on which the current article is based. My column, which for almost eight years has focused on the rise of Asia, lauded that speech as a welcome, if belated, re-orientation of establishment thinking about who's who and what's what in international relations.

However Asia's rise might be characterized, though, "just beginning" is just a bit too late.

Working out of the media capital of New York that ordinarily unquestioningly embraces the East Coast's Atlanticist outlook, Hoge perhaps should get a gold star for at least waking up and smelling the coffee (or tea). But the intellectually astute Kissinger knows better and should have made his Asia-first declaration long before this.

After all, the historic and admirable journey of President Richard Nixon and his then-secretary of state to China more than three decades ago is still regarded by historians as a monumental turning point in America's relations with the other half of the globe. But the fizz of American foreign policy tends only to bubble over on Middle East and European issues.

Reasons for this lack of perspective abound, but here are a few. For one thing, the indigenous languages of Asia are difficult for Occidentals to master; so are the main religions of the region, especially Buddhism and Hinduism, being perhaps too subtle or alien for many Western minds. Finally, the U.S. news media generally (and especially television) have the capacity to mass-communicate only one major foreign policy issue at a time. So when America is bogged down in Iraq -- or Kosovo, or whatever -- that's the entire ballgame.

Consider, for example, the huge story unfolding this week in Japan; hardly anyone in America is aware of it. On Sunday, triennial Upper House elections are to be held, and late polls show the party of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi is in trouble. It's even possible that a disastrous election outcome could force Koizumi to resign as head of his party and thus as the country's prime minister.

The implications for the United States, in particular, could be profound. Koizumi is Japan's most promising prime minister in recent memory. During his administration, the economy has risen from its extended siesta, and relations with the U.S. have been revitalized. "Koizumi sticks to his guns," as the sharp-eyed Tokyo-based Nikkei Weekly put it in a recent headline, referring, of course, to the prime minister's daring deployment of Japanese troops in humanitarian roles in Iraq.

But America has little appreciation for the Ginza of guts (in the teeth of negative public opinion) that Koizumi displayed in sending Japanese boys and girls off to that Middle East hell hole.

Ever since World War II, Japan has subordinated its foreign policy to America's, but this may not go on forever. It rankles many Japanese that they are taken for granted by America. But kowtowing subordination is not Japan's only option; another is some kind of Asian Union (perhaps like a European Union) realignment, even involving a peaceful pairing with China; another is to reprise an old-style India-like policy of nonalignment. Though neither is probable, neither is impossible.

So while the Bush administration fiddles and Iraq burns, yet another major-league Asian development gets scant due. Surely this lack of balance and parochial perspective cannot go on forever. Japan is arguably the second-largest economy in the world and America's leading ally in Asia. Next to it, Iraq is a comparative footnote, though the blunderbuss Bush administration had to make it the whole tragic story. What a terrible miscalculation.

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

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