Sunday, January 21, 2001
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Posted on: Sunday, January 21, 2001

Mr. President, start off on the right foot

By Tom Plate

We only have to go back eight years to recall how not to start a new presidency. Bill Clinton practically wrote the book on it: The bad stumble over the gay-rights issue, the gaffes with Congress, the deprioritizing of foreign affairs - especially Asia.

Clinton eventually recovered well enough - even after the health-care debacle - to become a two-term president; but what a waste of a honeymoon period.

President Bush should learn from the sad experience of Clinton’s first hundred days, and he might as well start with Asia. Here’s our advice:

Don’t waste the first year or so of your administration knocking China, as Clinton foolishly did. Don’t reinvent the human rights wheel, because it isn’t going to get you anywhere. You’ll just be wasting your time and taxpayer money, while irritating the Chinese, depressing the rest of Asia and embarrassing your allies. Better to press American ethical concerns in a manner that convinces the Chinese you are not grandstanding.

Beijing will open up gradually, but only when it is ready, and in its own way, unless there is a revolution - which would be a regional trauma you don’t want.

Don’t let all of your top people travel to Europe before anyone has gone to the other half of the world. That will give the wrong impression.

And don’t let your aides fool you with the fallacious argument that a sensible U.S.-Asia policy can be achieved without simultaneously honoring the historic roles of both China and Japan.

Some of the incoming Bush people believe the prior administration got too cozy with Beijing. And some of the outgoing Clinton people worry that the proposed payback to the Japanese could undo years of careful diplomacy with the paranoid Chinese.

The truth is, Clinton’s diplomacy at times was indeed too brusque toward the Japanese. But the way to redress that problem is not to be brusque toward the Chinese. Far better to construct a subtle diplomacy of respect for both great Asian powers, and to articulate, in a clear, consistent but low-key way, our basic regional interests in Asia, working as closely as possible with both major powers to maintain stability and prosperity.

An increase in armaments and troops sometimes can result in less security rather than more. We notice that for its Asia portfolio, this incoming administration has named a former Navy captain (James A. Kelly) as assistant secretary of state and, of course, a famous former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (Colin Powell) as secretary of state.

This tough team undoubtedly will pack some kind of firepower, but one hopes it won’t become punch-drunk with the idea of military might. It’s too often forgotten, especially by civilians, that rising levels of arms can trigger hostile buildups, rendering everyone considerably less well off than before. An irony of military emphasis is that a pushy, preachy diplomacy can be more a sign of weakness than a quiet one of serene self-confidence and strength.

As the new Bush administration begins considering new missile defense systems, it should keep in mind that what’s even more important than keeping our military mighty is keeping the U.S. dollar mighty.

How does a nation add to its own - much less to global - security if it sports the best missile defense system in the world but fails to offer leadership in the reform of the dangerously unstable international financial system and remains the largest contributor to global warming, whose future costs can’t even be imagined? How many humans on this planet would be imperiled by one errant "rogue" missile (a key justification for a theater missile defense) as compared to the cascade of incoming epidemics - new and unknown - that arrive via the new highways and byways of globalization?

My chief concern about the new American president is that he will ask the wrong questions and, inevitably, get the wrong answers. The most important question about China is not so much the possibility of aggression resulting from military buildup, but the possibility of implosion from festering internal problems.

The most important question about Japan is not whether to expand its military role in Asia in order to increase security, but how to expand its economy to enhance Asian economic stability, not to mention its own.

Remember: In the last few years, the most traumatic event for Asia was not the North Korean missile test, as much as it scared the Japanese especially, but the Asian financial crisis, which shook everyone in the region to their roots.

Tom Plate, a UCLA professor, is a regular columnist for The Honolulu Advertiser and the South China Morning Post. E-mail him at

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