DON'T SNATCH DEFEAT FROM THE JAWS
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
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
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.