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Wednesday, Aug. 13, 2008

Beijing Games focus U.S. attention on Asia

There's one huge under-appreciated plus about the Summer Olympics Games in China. They will bring an important part of Asia into the American living room day after day and night after night.

America's relationship with the vast area of the world we call Asia is complex and important. But this overriding truth often gets buried under the weight of other international concerns. U.S. headlines are dominated by developments in the Middle East and by the so-called war against terror. It is rare, indeed, for any story from Asia to get over-exposed in the U.S. media. But now one will, thanks to China's taking on this Olympic challenge. And while it may not be so sporting to say so, surely the most important part of this story will have little to do with sports.

It's necessary to note, before we go any further, that China does not take in all of Asia by any means. There's South Asia with, among other things, all-important India and almost-always troubled Pakistan. Then you have Southeast Asia with gigantic, Muslim-loaded Indonesia, now — pretty amazingly — a practicing democracy. On the other end of the scale there's tiny but prosperous Singapore, which has become something of a closet U.S. ally in the region.

Nor is China the whole story even in East Asia. There's this volatile strip of peninsula called Korea, where North is North and South is South and sometimes it looks as if they'll never meet. Then there's little Taiwan, which every once in awhile threatens to trigger a worry of World War III with its cocky defiance of the mainland. And please let us not forget about Japan, which — China notwithstanding — still boasts Asia's largest economy, one that trails only the United States, and which in some respects nurtures one of the world's most interesting and profound cultures.

Still, China, with more than a fifth of the globe's human beings living within its expansive borders, is odds-on to become the next superpower. It's hard to get many experts to argue with that. India is not out of the picture, to be sure, but its deeply engrained ways are less well-suited for decade-long super-sprints of economic and geopolitical ambition. But that's exactly today's China.

The story that will interest many of us unsporting Americans is thus not who wins the gold for jumping the high hurdles, but how towering are the political hurdles in China for some measure of democratic reform and tolerance of open dissent. From this perspective alone, these Olympic Games are far more interesting to many of us here than if they were being held in, say, Sweden. In fact, these are the most interesting Olympics in a long time — from a political perspective.

The hope here is that America will stay glued to the Games for two reasons. Somehow, it should impress on us forever that China is no longer asleep. It may be a stumbling giant or a troubled future superpower but America now will ignore it or pick a fight with it at serious peril. The second reason is that China, as a key part of Asia, makes the case that Asia is suddenly more important than it has ever been and that more attention must be paid to the vast region.

This reminder comes at an opportune time. As the Games wind down, the two American political nominating conventions will start to do their quadrennial ritual thing, and the presidential campaign, which has sometimes seemed longer than Mao's historic Long March itself, moves into the home stretch, finally. It will be good for both Republican nominee John McCain and Democratic nominee Barack Obama to have been reminded of Asia's growing importance.

In fact, the number-one challenge for the next president will be to make our complex relationship with Asia in general and with China in particular the top priority of the new administration. The geopolitical center of gravity in this 21st century is clearly moving in that direction; not even all the smog in Beijing can blanket that fact.

Fortunately, America's relations with that region are probably in better condition than with the rest of the world. Even the China relationship, touchy as it always is, reflects the incremental progress of hard work, by both the Bush and Clinton administrations, as well as by the Hu Jintao government itself. In effect, both sides concur that good relations are too important to be trifled with or made a hash of.

The next president, though, must keep his eye on the Asian ball if the U.S. is to keep in touch with the power reality of the new age. That will mean putting the best American brains on the important Asia-policy jobs, reflecting on the need for his secretary of state not to cancel vital Asian meetings as if they were throw-away ceremonial outings, and instructing his speechwriters to help him explain to the American people this simple truth: While the last century was the American one, the new century is sure to be the Asian one. There must be no playing games with this truth.

Syndicated columnist Tom Plate, on leave from UCLA for his Asia book, is a veteran journalist. © 2008 Pacific Perspectives Media Network.

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