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Saturday, April 16, 2005

Is Asia moving forward or backward?


LOS ANGELES -- Settling old scores is the characteristic of small minds; moving forward is the stuff of vision and leadership. Despite the growing trade among China, Japan and South Korea, much political activity appears to focus on the settlement of grudges.

Lecturing Asian leaders about what to do probably won't get anyone very far, but here goes anyhow: Please be careful about what you say in public.

There is no telling where Asia will wind up in the end, if everyone keeps shouting at each other to even old scores or to make domestic political debating points. What could happen? How about a serious regional economic downturn caused by juvenile political bickering? Rank national protectionism? Or, worst of all, war?

Such distinctly doom-and-gloom thoughts suddenly popped into my mind in the most unlikely of settings -- an otherwise major upbeat Asia conference here in California. The topic of the University of Southern California's annual "Asia/Pacific Business Outlook" in Los Angeles was the seemingly relentlessly booming economy and the mushrooming business opportunities of the region.

Distinguished speaker after speaker from the business, political and academic worlds exulted in China's amazing resurrection from poverty, in Japan's continuation as the world's No. 2 economy, in the colossal economic advance of South Korea, in Singapore's sly rise from nowhere to modern, baby-brat prodigy, in the dawning hope of permanent political evolution in sprawling Indonesia, in the Teflon-tough tiger that is Taiwan, and so on.

The facts and figures and accomplishments are all there, the roaring dynamism undeniable, the future bright and sunny; except there's also the daunting question of whether the region's political side can evolve fully through the 21st century with the same grandeur, maturity and subtlety as the economic side has so far. And here is where one gets worried.

In Asia a potentially corrosive new issue has emerged -- whether Japan should have a permanent U.N. Security Council seat. And the question appears to have brought an awful lot of half-hidden poison to the surface. The prospect of a permanent council perch in the U.N. spurred countless people in China to protest, whether in the streets (somewhat violently) or online (somewhat rudely). Their grievances comprise a now-familiar list: textbooks that whitewash the vast cruelties of Japan's foreign invasions, lack of sufficient apologies and needless territorial disputes.

Beijing appears, alas, to be pushing this one hard. China's premier, visiting India early this week, all but denounced Japan's application for permanent Security Council membership and pointedly endorsed India's bid instead. The slap in Tokyo's face and the major kiss-up to New Delhi could be heard and seen throughout the world. It was -- outside of India, anyway -- an ugly moment.

Tokyo probably could have and should have said nothing, but saying nothing, working the back channels quietly and even assuming an air of humility publicly are evidently not so much in fashion in Asia these days.

In response to the demonstrations in China, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi protested publicly to his domestic constituencies, and Foreign Minister Nobutaka Machimura protested officially to the Chinese government. And so the whole imbroglio crawled onto the next ugly rock.

To be sure, Tokyo doesn't help people forget the past with its aggressive pursuit of territorial claims, and Beijing doesn't exactly help solidify its desired image as a saintly, peaceful power by letting its nationalism run wild.

It must also be said that Seoul adds nothing to the worrisome perception that its economy is obviously more advanced than its polity by raising the very Japanese apology issue that the prior president, Nobel Peace Prize winner Kim Dae Jung, sought to bury once and for all when he ruled from the Blue House.

Rising economic interdependence can carry Asia's hoped-for political maturation only so far. It is not utopian to ask Asia's leaders to try to lift the neighborhood to a higher level of discourse, rather than appeal to people's lower instincts. Prosperity in Asia depends entirely on the maintenance of peace. Worryingly, there's a developing, disturbing disconnect between the region's economic modernism and a kind of political revanchism. Will the political down-slide in Asia start to erode the economy, turn off outside investment and ensnare this otherwise extraordinary region in the pitfalls of the past? That's the danger I fear.

"April is the cruelest month," the American poet T.S. Eliot wrote in another context. This month it is painful to witness the widespread pain inflicted throughout the region when higher-caliber diplomacy should keep old wounds sewn up and new ones from being added.

Tom Plate, a member of the Pacific Council on International Policy, is a UCLA professor. Copyright 2005 Tom Plate


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