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Wednesday, Jan. 26, 2005

Things look up to Downer


LOS ANGELES -- They say an optimist looks at the very same glass that the pessimist sees as half-empty and proclaims it to be half-full. By that measure, one of the world's foremost optimists has got to be Alexander Downer, Australia's minister for foreign affairs.

Australia has made itself into a more important player than ever in the Asia-Pacific region in part, frankly, because the government has not been afraid to take chances.

A few years ago the Australians sent in a large peacekeeping force to troubled East Timor and did a fine job. More recently they successfully sent troops into the neighboring Solomon Islands to ease tension and prevent ethic strife. When Washington requested a troop contribution to Iraq, despite misgivings, Australia did not dally. And when the ferocious Dec. 26 tsunami leveled parts of Indonesia and elsewhere, the Aussies were quick off the mark to pitch in.

The Australian government, which has been recently (and easily) re-elected, is proud of its international labors, and perhaps can be forgiven if it struts a little nowadays.

This past week in Los Angeles the Australians put on display a glittering "G'Day, L.A." showcase of events from politics to show business and real business. One night it was a celebrity gala, another it was a major foreign-policy speech. All through the week there were fruitful meetings with American investors and business mates.

All the time Downer, glass half-full, was the model optimist: making the glad-hand rounds at events, offering a World Affairs Council speech on the "urgent need" for serious U.N. reform, and even taking time to talk with a somewhat pessimistic columnist. Here are some Downer uppers:

Iraq: If news media reports are to be believed, the situation is a genuine mess, and a recent New York Times poll shows U.S. public opinion ominously shifting against the war. Beware of pessimism, advises Downer, it will all work out.

"Iraqis believe in democracy," says the foreign minister. "It's just the terrorists and the Baathists who want to disrupt the voting process. The news media dramatizes the situation.

"You don't report stories about bombs not going off. It's tough to win, but you shouldn't give up. Australians believe we shouldn't cut and run." (The government has troops stationed there, of which two were seriously injured in a recent attack on its embassy.)

Indonesia: This patchwork quilt of a nation once carelessly stitched together by the late and unlamented Dutch colonial empire consists of thousands of islands, some of which really don't like one another. Not to worry: "Politically, Indonesia is at a high-water mark right now," he said, not referring to the tsunami, of course. "Things are not perfect, but it is a pluralistic society, and Indonesia is taking to democracy like a duck to water." (again, no pun intended).

China: "We have a very positive view on China. It is not a regional or economic threat. Politically, it is very pragmatic. They are passionate about achieving economic development." But how about all that scary tension with Taiwan? Not to worry -- it's been overblown by hysterical commentators (like me).

He suggests: "The problem is that [Taiwan President] Chen Shui-bian gets under China's skin. Our position is that their historic differences will be solved over time. But Chen does need to be cautious." Overall, in large part due to the growing economic interdependency between the mainland and the offshore island, military conflict there is, he avers, "much less likely."

And so, in effect, I went zero for three with the foreign minister. My view: Iraq seems at this point to be a lost cause; America won the war but is losing the peace. Indonesia may deserve every bit of the lavish praise Downer gives it just for moving from military dictatorship to its first full embrace of democracy, but the jury is still out as to whether the political transformation will stick. It may prove a hung jury, for powerful antiforeigner and prosecessionist pressures boil just below the surface and could engulf the world's largest concentration of Muslims in civil war at any time.

As for China and Taiwan, gosh, one hopes the foreign minister is right (about this and everything else, to tell the truth). Further taunting and slip-sliding by the cagey Chen risks triggering an invasion that would put the mainland's hard-earned economic progress on hold, plunge the region into instability, and put on the spot U.S. President George W. Bush, who said in his second inaugural speech that "it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world. This is not primarily the task of arms, though we will defend ourselves and our friends by force of arms when necessary."

The last I looked, Taiwan is a land of liberty and democracy, no? Before long in Australia, the word for optimism will be "Downer."

Syndicated columnist Tom Plate is a UCLA professor and director of the nonprofit Asia Pacific Media Network. Copyright Tom Plate 2005


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