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不要在勝利的利齒下失利

DON'T SNATCH DEFEAT FROM THE JAWS OF VICTORY

By Tom Plate

May 21, 2004

LOS ANGELES -- My friends in Asia ought to take a step back from all their worries, pressing as they are, and come to grips with the pleasant reality that, on the whole, the region is doing better than they may think. Certainly they ought to avoid turning obvious positives into unnecessary negatives. Asia has enough real problems without imagining new ones.

Take the apparent anguish in South Korea over the U.S. move to transfer close to 4,000 troops to Iraq. Wake up, South Koreans! This is on the whole a good thing.  Any marginal -- repeat, marginal -- reduction in the high U.S. military profile in your homeland only adds to your military and national security, not undermines it.

Why? Precisely because the all-but-impoverished Democratic People's Republic of Korea is absolutely desperate to cut a deal with you (you rich South Korean capitalists), with Japan (whose audacious Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has for the second time in two years visited the North Korean capital -- good for him), with Russia and, of course, with the richest capitalist conglomerate of all: the United States.

But it can't and won't sue for peace with Donald Rumsfeld breathing fire in its Communist face.

However, our U.S. Defense secretary must avert North Korea's glare in order to staunch the horrific bleeding in Iraq. The United States, seriously bogged down Vietnam-style in Iraq, is in no position to try anything foolishly adventurous with the North. By the same logic, China, delighted with increasingly excellent relations with the South (and trading happily with the United States and Japan), is in no mood to endorse or support any measure of military adventurism by the North.

Thus, the minor U.S. troops drawdown (hardly more than 10 percent of the force structure) provides Beijing, the premier ringmaster of the six-party talks on Korea, with an historic opportunity to nail down a deal that provides aid for the North while guaranteeing a denuclearized peninsula.

Same with the ongoing elections in Indonesia, home to the globe's largest number of Muslims. Some commentators poke fun at the labyrinthine election process which, in all probability, won't yield a final presidential winner until the fall. So, what's the rush? As Chusnul Maria of the Indonesian Election Commission puts it, reflecting that the current system of electing a president requires a September runoff if no single candidate achieves 50 percent of the vote (actually, it's not such a bad idea to avoid having a minority president): "Building democracy is like building a house. We are just laying the foundations in Indonesia, it's too soon to expect us to fix holes in the roof."

While democracy is not the magic bullet for every polity, at any and every stage of development, it might well work for Indonesia's 235 million people. Consider the country's alternative: Who wants a back-to-the-future fate of more corrupt authoritarian and military rule?

Three strong candidates lead the field now, of which the weakest politically (and lagging in the current polls) appears to be the incumbent, President Megawati Sukarnoputri. I like the droll comment of my friend, a big-league Indonesian produce-export mogul (who prefers to remain nameless): "Hey, the absolute worst that can happen to us is we wind up with Megawati!"

And let us scoff at the silly cynicism and unnecessary negativity over the recently concluded Indian elections. Sure, nearly everyone was shocked out of their Madras tops by the defeat of Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, whose government seemed to be moving the economy forward aggressively while trying to downplay the backward policy of antagonizing India's many Muslims.

And perhaps even more were shocked when the proud leader of the winning Congress Party -- Sonia Gandhi -- dramatically declined to accept the post of prime minister. What in the world is going on here?

Two things: One is that India has in Mrs. Gandhi a very remarkable woman, perhaps in the exalted mode of Plato -- that is, a Philosopher-Queen driven less by naked political ambition than by profound love of her country.

The other is that in declining the honor, the Italian-born Mrs. Gandhi did not leave her nation leaderless or put her country in the uncomfortable position of being ruled by a lesser. Indeed, her Congress Party colleague Manmohan Singh is credited with being the architect of India's burgeoning economic reform. In fact, when he accepted the prime minister position in her place, the world's economic rating agencies shot up India's stock overnight. One can only hope Singh can work similar magic on his nation's daunting poverty and income-disparity problems.

None of these reflections about Korea, Indonesia and India ignore Asia's many serious problems. Panglossian posturing is no more helpful than Cassandra-esque sky-is-falling compulsiveness. But for all its challenges, Asia has had a pretty good recent run of things, whether it realizes it or not.

Let's put it this way, dear friends: However steep the obstacles, last week at least, Asia was no Gaza. We can be thankful for that.

 
 

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