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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, May 13, 2001

Is this man savior of U.S.-Asia policy?

By Thomas Plate
A columnist with The Honolulu Advertiser and the South China Morning Post and a professor in communication studies and policy studies at UCLA

It's now practically an Asia-Pacific article of faith, certainly among many of the Hawai'i-based business and academic professionals who populated the big meeting about Asia last week at the spankingly modern Hawai'i Convention Center. They believe that James A. Kelly, the policy-wonk local boy gone to Washington for the big State Department job, is in fact one of them.

That, as it were, he is not Dr. Strangelove masquerading as a responsible U.S. defense secretary —or some two-step Texan masquerading as a cosmopolitan world leader.

But are they right about the former head of the well-regarded Pacific Forum, the Honolulu-based nonprofit dedicated to improving U.S.-Asia understanding, who's now officially ensconced in the key diplomatic post of assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs?

Working in Washington for too long can do strange things to even normal people, but if Kelly's Senate confirmation statements do somehow reflect the sincere views of his superiors — who after all did make the decision to appoint him — then he is the best thing to date that the Bush administration has done for Asia.

Kelly, the senior director for Asian affairs in former President Bush's White House National Security Council, understands East Asia as both a monumental headache and a historic opportunity. It's "a place," as he puts it, "in which armed conflict could occur with little warning."

Such caution about a region always on the edge despite tremendous economic and social development makes him respectful of the stress-overloaded Korean Peninsula and "last June's remarkable Korean summit." Says he: "Most Koreans, and I think most Americans, really do not have a better idea for approaching such a seriously deficient place as North Korea than the one that (South Korean) President Kim (Dae Jung) is pursuing."

Kelly paints the Sino-U.S. relationship not in black-vs.-white terms but in "a considerable range of gray." He agrees that China's tendencies toward both globalism and intense nationalism are "contradictions ... that make it difficult to predict the future course of our relationship." But despite the military buildup, China "is not the Soviet Union in the 1970s. We do not see factories putting out thousands of tanks and jet bombers or anything of that sort."

Regional high points, he says, include Taiwan's democracy, though he insists that U.S. policy on that island's relationship with Beijing hasn't really changed, despite his boss' recent rhetorical back-and-forths; and the continuing U.S. strategic relationship with Japan, a great nation for which he has nothing but respect and sympathy: "Solving (the problems of) a huge and rich economy like Japan is not an easy task."

Kelly talks about Indonesia — indeed, he actually knows where it is — with urgency. U.S. policy needs to support the national territorial integrity of this far-flung archipelago, or it may wake up one morning to discover "a fragmented Indonesia that feeds fundamentalism, narrow regionalism and movements that, to put it most charitably, are very unstable and very dangerous."

He skirts a direct clash with the well-intentioned but ultimately self-defeating congressional ban on U.S. aid to the Indonesian armed forces by simply proffering the view that holding this sprawling nation together in one piece without the active cooperation of the country's military is hard to imagine.

All the conceivable alternatives to a Kelly approach to East Asia are mainly frightening. The worst would end up polarizing the region into either a China-containment camp or a China-alliance camp. Political opportunists in America, such as Rep. Christopher Cox, R-Calif. —the one who sought to exploit fears of Chinese spying in the United States into an expanded political career — would take center stage. East Asia would explode into monumentally costly — and regionally destabilizing — arms buildups.

Understanding full well how easily East Asia could sink into the abyss of the past is why many delegates to the Asian Development Bank conference (which went off so smoothly, even the anti-globalization protesters had their day of uninterrupted protest) view Kelly, a former Navy captain, as on their side. They believe that this is the one man, in this new Washington administration at least, who understands Asia and who appreciates the sensible centeredness of their heartfelt philosophy: Make money, not war.

The truth is, right now, what and who else do they have to believe in?

Thomas Plate can be reached at tplate@ucla.edu.