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Tuesday, Jan. 15, 2008

Recurring dream about Asia's prospects

LOS ANGELES — The Grand Asian Master, no more than a few thousand years old, appeared to me the other night (as he does from time to time) and asked what I wish for these days.

North Korea: I told him that I dream of North Korea's "Dear Leader" Kim Jong Il deciding to feed his people instead of his military. I dream he finally concludes that the six-party nuclear-disarmament agreement is the only way his country will ever crawl out of the hole because it hugely obligates the West to come to the North's aid. In fact, as the aid pours in, the Dear Leader hands power over to his nonbelligerent foreign minister and flees to Libya. Months later the nation is put under U.N. Trusteeship.

Japan: I imagine that a cabal of cutting-edge Japanese engineers clones Junichiro Koizumi, a former brilliant prime minister who, amazingly, lasted for a full term and got Japan's polity and economy moving again. With one difference: They manage to extract the ultranationalist gene from his double helix that so aggravated Japan's neighbors, leaving intact this otherwise political Houdini. The current prime minister, Yasuo Fukuda, is doing much better on the regional-relations front, but otherwise, alas, he is no Koizumi. Japan badly needs leadership of the Koizumi kind.

Sri Lanka: This island nation, bedeviled by a brutal on-again-off-again civil war over the last 25 years, suddenly finds peace. (And from Oslo, the Nobel Prize Committee rightly awards the prestigious Peace Prize to the heroic Nordic Sri Lanka Monitoring Commission, for its saintly if unavailing efforts these past years in trying to keep the lid on the Sri Lankan self-destructiveness.)

Pakistan: Turns out the president-dictator, Pervez Musharraf, is a true Japanese in his secret soul. Realizing that he has almost no credibility with anyone anymore, and taking moral (though not operational) responsibility for the shattering assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, he dramatically offers his resignation to the people of Pakistan. Pakistan holds free and fair elections in February, a coalition government emerges, and the country takes another promising step away from harsh and ineffective military rule.

Taiwan: In March, the voters of Taiwan elect a new president. Immediately, the winner, Ma Ying-jeou, the Kuomintang (KMT) Party's former chairman, announces unconditional acceptance of cross-strait negotiations with Beijing. Tension between the mainland and the off-shore island (which sometimes had insisted on existential as well as official and eternal independence from Beijing) lowers dramatically. In an atmosphere of mutual trust and respect — with Taiwan vowing never to insist on a permanent goodbye and China promising never ever to invade — talks continue for years while making steady progress. Over the same time, the mainland starts to transform itself into a virtual one-party democracy not unlike that of postwar Japan, and no more corrupt than the KMT.

Hong Kong: Anger over China's announced reluctance to permit open elections until 2017 recedes when a top Hong Kong mathematician holds a revealing press conference. By using a California Institute of Technology super-computer, he proves the complex theorem that even with that 2017 marker, China is technically more democracy-oriented than Britain ever was. His reasoning? London was the political landlord of Hong Kong for more than 150 years and never permitted open elections.

China: All of a sudden, in a change of policy as well as of heart, Beijing starts releasing more jailed dissidents into the environment than dioxins. The political atmosphere as well as the air is suddenly cleaner. The Communist Party announces that different and contesting factions within the Party will not only be permitted but encouraged to openly debate issues and take advice from the people. This was the sharp change-in-direction Taiwan (once a one-party country itself) took two decades ago.

Thailand: The military junta, embarrassed by the voters' rebuff at the polls last month, becomes Japanese-like and resigns with an abject and possibly sincere apology. A coalition government takes power that promises to continue the strong aid programs for the poor and general economic reforms that had characterized the pre-junta government of Thaksin Shinawatra — but without all the corruption and arrant favoritism that also defined Thaksin's rule. Decades later, historians praise the current junta for actually having saved Thai democracy.

Indonesia: The country with the greatest number of Muslims continues to grow its new culture of participatory democracy. At the same time, the economy soars. This marginalizes the worst and most miserable of the radicals and militants, and serves as a majestic political role model for the entire Muslim world.

In a gesture no doubt reflecting a huge worldwide sigh of relief, Jakarta is accepted by the U.N. Security Council as a permanent council member, elevating the global prestige of this moderate Muslim country, and making moderate Muslims everywhere terrifically proud of the achievement.

Just before my body shuddered and I returned from my dream to consciousness, the Grand Asian Master spoke to me. I remember clearly what he said, because it was only two words. What he said was: "Dream on.''

UCLA professor Tom Plate is a syndicated columnist. Copyright 2008 Tom Plate

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