Sunday, February 4, 2001
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Posted on: Sunday, February 4, 2001

Outlines of new Asia policy emerging

By Tom Plate
UCLA professor and a columnist with the Honolulu Advertiser, The South China Morning Post and The Straits Times.

The good news is that it looks as if most Bush officials, however reluctantly, are buying into the Kim Dae Jung policy of engagement with North Korea.

Privately, of course, they wish the South Korean government would wrap its policy in a package much less gushingly optimistic than "sunshine policy." But whatever the "non-sunshine" Bush boys want to call it, they are, for the moment at least (and as they absolutely should), supporting South Korea’s Nobel Peace Prize-winning South Korean president, Kim Dae Jung.

Then again, are they?

Last week the United States slapped economic sanctions, the first since they were eased last year, on a North Korean firm presumptively fronting for Kim Jong Il’s military. The U.S. charge, familiar enough, was missile technology export to Iran.

For its part, Pyongyang responded with a patented industrial-grade propaganda blast, painting Bush as a craven hegemony-seeker. Brutal badinage like this can only take the region back to the future of a new old Cold War.

Regarding Japan, the story line seemed similar. Were there any doubt about the new Bush team’s tilt-toward-Tokyo policy combined with something less than sunshine for Beijing, it completely evaporated with the ministerial visit to the Bush State Department of Japanese Foreign Minister Yohei Kono. He was the first foreign minister, pointedly, to receive that invitation.

Sure, the Japanese were flattered — how could they not be?

But they were also a little unnerved. Even in Japan, yellow caution signs are flashing over this tilt diplomacy. Why provoke Beijing? Perhaps the administration would be better off if it broadened its expertise base at the high policy levels to take in Chinese as well as Japanese experts.

Another flash from the past erupted in the South China Sea. In a tense standoff last week, Philippine aircraft and navy ships confronted Chinese fishing boats in disputed territory.

Beijing lodged a diplomatic protest in Manila when Philippines forces wouldn’t back down. Who’s to blame? Was it the obviously flawed but democratic-like regime in Manila, or the obviously flawed but undemocratic-regime in Beijing?

And was there any connection between Beijing’s sudden feistiness and the new frostiness toward China coming out of Washington?

It’s dangerous to play diplomatic or military games in Asia. This region may well offer the first pivotal test of the administration’s readiness to send emergency U.S. troops abroad. The obvious candidate is Indonesia — the archipelago nation of 13,000 islands and 225 million people. With bloodshed now common, the military not under firm civilian thumb and the government of Abdurrahman Wahid starting to resemble that of the well-intentioned but ineffective Mikhail Gorbachev in his waning days, not many in the region would be greatly surprised if Indonesia turns into a Yugoslavia.

And if so, would Washington really just stand by and do nothing?

Alas, it’s more than possible — at least judging from the U.S. reluctance to get more than marginally involved in East Timor last year. Australia bravely led a multinational peacekeeping effort into East Timor; and even the normally involvement-shy Chinese and Japanese contributed a little to the trans-Asian effort.

But Australia would not want to play the lonesome-cowboy leadership role again; this time, it would be up to America.

Would the Bush administration turn its back on the people of the fourth-most-populous nation? Maybe nerves would be a little calmed, at least — and the potential for further decline actually reduced — if Asians were to see Washington actually developing plausible policy options.

For starters, Congress could lift restrictions on U.S. military involvement in Indonesia, a critical area that hosts nearly half the world’s commercial shipping.

American strategic partner Japan, struggling now, has vital interests there. Were Indonesia to unravel some more, were Tokyo’s economy to tank some more, and were Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan’s America to lose its magic economic touch, Asia, from Taipei to Bombay, would face turmoil.

Says the astute economist Peter Beck of the Washington-based Korea Economic Institute of America: "With Japan most likely to remain an economic basket-case for the foreseeable future, a U.S. recession is the single greatest threat to Asia prosperity."

And a recession in America, which absorbs 20 percent of East Asia’s exports, would spread across Asia. In that circumstance, you can forget all about the all-important Asian economic reform movement that surfaced in the wake of the region’s near-collapse three years ago.

So when Greenspan dropped U.S. interest rates last week, for the second time this year, it was the best news for Asia since Bush’s inauguration. Asians would be the first to say to the new non-sunshine Bush boys: It’s the economy, stupid.

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