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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, April 14, 2002

Hypocrisy not good policy toward Asia

By Tom Plate

Want to have some fun and propel the average Asian expert into gales of laughter? Just propose the idea of a genuine friendship — not to mention a geopolitical alliance — between China and Japan. That will do it.

Japan Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, center, writes "Sincere Pardon" in Chinese characters in front of a wall depicting martyrs of the Chinese People's War of Resistance against Japan. Koizumi's approval rating has dropped in Japan but remains relatively high.

Associated Press library photo • Oct. 8, 2001

No wonder. The hostility between these two great peoples is deeply embedded; the tensions are probably as permanent a feature of the Asian landscape as Mount Fuji or the Great Wall of China. But if there is in fact any one outside force capable of uniting these dueling nations, it might be Western policy hypocrisy toward Asia.

A notable event occurred last week. It was not just that Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi visited China. State visits are a dime a dozen — ceremonial occasions or media events. But this one was different: Koizumi had agreed, respectfully and tellingly, to visit Hainan Island, the site of China's suspicion-creating annual policy-wonk retreat.

More and more, the Hainan event is being characterized by disgruntled Asians (not just Chinese) as China's answer to the World Economic Forum's annual retreat in Davos (held this year, however, in Manhattan). On the whole, the Davos crowd is American and European. That Koizumi — head of America's foremost ally in Asia — would agree to hobnob with the Chinese in Hainan cannot be a gesture lost on Washington.

The telegenic Koizumi is still an interesting figure. Opinion polls show that his popularity has roughly halved, but at 40 percent or so, his approval rating remains a relative high-water mark in Japanese political memory; he is far from finished. Moreover, the list of plausible candidates to replace him should he falter further is short. That could happen, though. The dominant Liberal Democratic Party — of which Koizumi, as prime minister, is chairman — is reeling from last month's devastating electoral loss of the mayoralty of Yokohama.

Koizumi may find glamorous foreign-policy forays a convenient way to shore up his standing, especially as Japan's economy remains in the doldrums, immune to easy and instant political relief.

Two opportunities offer themselves in particular: One is on the Korean peninsula, where a trip to North Korea could help ease tensions; the other is China, where last week's trip already has.

It is hard to imagine the incoming Chinese government of Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao being more pleased than to have the PM of the "Great Britain of Asia," as Washington describes Japan, sharing rice dishes in Hainan and poring over the regional political menu with them. In a sense, Hainan is to Davos what Avis is to Hertz: a competitor that increasingly tries harder to win Asia's loyalties.

Hainan is no hallucination: On the contrary, those wildly imaginative enough to envision a closer Tokyo-Beijing bond see its possible apotheosis in the parochial stupidity of domestically driven Western economic policies that appear anti-Asian or, at the very least, anti-developing country.

A recent example is the Bush administration's decision to protect the U.S. steel industry from competition from lower-cost steel from Korea, Japan, China and elsewhere. U.S. Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill deserves tremendous credit for breaking ranks with his boss by speaking out against the proposed steel tariffs. Is he long for Bush's world?

Then there's the European Union's transparent attempt to exploit Bush's steel blunder by seeming more pro-Asian than America. The problem with that ploy is its relative hollowness. Just recently, the EU barred imports of Chinese foods, just as it continues to shut the import gate on many food products from developing countries everywhere.

The net effect is to render those long Western lectures on the urgent need for Asian and developing countries to open up their markets to Western goods seem hypocritical and self-serving.

Undoubtedly, the West is absolutely correct on the economic theory and believes it what it says: Over time, open markets will raise living standards for many. But it is wrong not to try harder to practice what it believes and preaches.

The situation is not yet a crisis. As powerful and immensely irritating as Western hypocrisy can be, even this force is probably not significant enough to overcome centuries of Chinese-Japanese hatred. But why put that proposition to the test?

The task for the United States is to develop and implement policies that in perception as well as reality are fair to all as they can be. Only then will every nation want to buy into the proposition that what is good for the West might just be good for all.

Tom Plate, a columnist with The Honolulu Advertiser and the South China Morning Post, is a professor at UCLA. Reach him at tplate@ucla.edu. He also has a spot on the Web.