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Monday, April 24, 2006

Asian leaders acting badly: the makings of nightmares


LOS ANGELES -- Paging Dr. Geopolitical Freud! It's an emergency.

"Vell," said the voice booming over my mobile. "Vhat's so important? you've got another 9/11 now?"

Dr. GP talks in such a thick Teutonic accent, sometimes he's hard to understand. So I'll smooth out the German a bit for you to make it easier to follow.

I explained that the South Korean government was practically about to declare war on Japan, China was getting increasingly angry for the same reason (all involving long-simmering disputes over tiny patches of islets in the region), and Japan was showing no inclination to back down or kowtow to either of them.

After a short crackly silence over the mobile came this from the world-famous geopolitical psychiatrist: "Vat you must understand is that these three powers are in zee throes of serious mid-life crisis."

He must be kidding.

"China has come out of novhere in two decades to begin to assert its masculinity in Asia, South Korea ez now one of world's dozen largest economies and ez flexing its muscles after years in shadow of the U.S., and Japan has avoken from decade-long sleep. Its pacifist roots may ve rotting in unfertilized arid political soil."

He wasn't kidding. So it is a kind of political psychiatric phenomenon?

"Vell, exactly. Zee three nations are pushing and testing and challenging vone another. Zee political fighting is so fierce, precisely because the stakes are so small."

The good doctor was referring to all those sad, little, rocky dog-tag islands in the psycho-game. They have names like Dokdo (if you're Korean; the Japanese call it Takeshima), Senkaku (if you're Japanese; Diaoyutai if you're Chinese) and disputed Okinotorishima. The latter is a remote little dump of a rock that only a badly fatigued bird could manage to love. Yet, the three bad Asian boys are acting like they're ready to start shooting up the region over it.

"It ezz not zabout territories, really, it eez about bragging rights and national pride and zee usual awful domestic pandering. Sometimes I never see a democracy these days zat I don't like."

I let that one go.

"Another cause is globalization, you zee. Zee more people are brought together, zee more all zee international stores push out or crush zee homegrown vones, zee more zee world becomes homogenized like vone big frothy Frappuccino, the more, psychologically and unconsciously, nations reach inside zemselves to pull out their uniqueness, zer identies."

And that leads to the disproportionate asserting of claims?

"Vell, yes. But dis is very dangerous for all its irrationality."

Well, obviously.

"No, it ezz not so obvious. Take for example the Dokdo/Takeshima dispute. Remember, this is not just issue of national pride for Koreans in the Zouth but for those in the North, too. And so if it escalates, if zer is actual conflict, the North may join forces with the Zouth against the Japanese."

And North Korea has a few atomic bombs?

"Vell, maybe it does, maybe it doesn't. But vone zing is a certainty: The sight of a united North and Zouth will put a stake through the heart of Japan's useful postwar pacifism and prompt it to go nuclear overnight."

What happens then?

"Vell, you may have a united Korea, but you vill also have a very united Japan. And a very united and angry Japan is not is zee interest of regional or world peace, if history teaches us anything."

And why should ve -- I mean, WE -- care?

"Zee U.S. is very very close to zee Japanese. If East Asia starts splitting Japan for-against, then ve come up against zee united opposition of a kind of united Korea and mammoth China."

And that would not be very smart.

"It could be zee nightmare scenario for Asia."

UCLA Professor Tom Plate, a member of the Pacific Council on International Policy, is founder of the UCLA Media Center and the Asia Pacific Media Network.


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