What to Watch out for in 2004

What to Watch out for in 2004

America's obsession with terrorism won't be the whole story

By Tom Plate
Pacific Perspectives Columnist

LOS ANGELES -- Time magazine's man-of-the year issue, with its "American Soldier'' cover, beautifully mirrors the U.S. obsession with terrorism and military approaches. For much of America, it seems, there is but one issue these days: terrorism. But the U.S. public is missing the larger picture. In the Asia-Pacific region alone, real monster issues, some of which could trigger wars, loom ominously.

Here's the short list:

Muslim moderation: an oxymoron?: Far from it, but Muslims throughout Asia will need outside support to stand up against the guerrillas in their midst. The five nations with the largest Muslim populations are all in Asia, which is also where Muslim extremism threatens to destabilize governments and unnerve the whole region. The future clearly lies in the hands of Muslim moderation, and this could be the premier showdown issue of 2004.

Pakistan immoderation: an inevitability?: President Pervez Musharraf, a military man, dodged two assassination plots recently. If the worst does happen (and there will be more attempts), Muslim extremism will overtake the country's polity and infest India's northwestern neighbor with exportable poison. This would prove devastating, especially to India, the world's largest democracy. Expect the West to weigh in with more help for Musharraf.

Indian secularism: a losing cause?: The Pakistan crisis comes just as India has been trying to downplay its traditional anti-Paki obsession by lowering its rhetoric and homing in on its economic needs. Musharraf has given India this luxury, but should he fail, Indian domestic politics would revert to the default position, with religious extremists revving up Pakistan anew as the primo issue. Both countries, nuclear powers, have much at stake in Musharraf. Expect the worst, hope for the best.

Indonesian stability: an extremist rebuke?: Will separatist pressures in Aceh province lead to extremist control over Indonesia, home to the world's largest Muslim population but which has the potential to become a true model for Muslim democracy. Is it ever in the interest of extremists to see peace in their time? It is not. (And how about comparable worrisome separatist pressures elsewhere, such as in Sri Lanka?)

North Korea: hopeless cause?: The Bush inner-circle wants regime change, but the Pyongyang regime likes things as they are. Beijing doesn't want a change in regime, but doesn't like things as they are. The tension bedevils the Japanese, who until now have been pacifist, and worries South Korea, one of China's leading trade buddies. Expect Beijing to bring more pressure on its former ally to agree to settlements at the soon-to-be-restarted six-nation talks. Together, China and Japan have much clout. But can they work together?

Rising suns, falling son: Peace with North Korea would be pure political Viagra for Junichiro Koizumi, Japan's brilliant but beaten-down prime minister. What a mess is political Japan, the world's second largest economy as it reportedly moves toward a two-party system in the American tradition. In fact, it is stuck as an ungainly three-party camel of a cartel. In the inconclusive November national election, Koizumi garnered just enough Diet votes to form a government -- though only with Buddhist coalition partner Komeito Party -- and thus probably doesn't have enough clout to lift Japan. Even so, expect the cagey Koizumi to employ a daring double-strategy of diplomatic spectaculars (again, pray for a Korean settlement) and quiet double-dealing with party dinosaurs to move Japan forward, inch by bitter inch.

China's new syndrome: friend or foe?: China's calming multinational diplomacy is having dramatic effect. It is making world rival United States seem more unilateral than ever, and regional rival Japan less essential than ever. It is also making Taiwan's cage-rattling lurch toward formal independence less appealing across the region. (Who needs it?) With a presidential election looming in March, will this plucky democracy pull China's chain once too often and trigger war across the Taiwan Strait? Expect cooler heads to prevail even if pro-independence President Chen Shui-bian wins re-election. A more pressing problem for Beijing than Taipei is growing U.S. protectionist sentiment -- and quiet fears across Asia of potential Chinese commercial rapaciousness.

Working on the nerves of the American worker: Mega-corporate icon IBM plans to fire more U.S. workers as it farms out business to lower-cost labor sites abroad. In this age of increasing cost-competition, more American workers will lose jobs even as more American consumers buy cheap imported goods. Similarly, the near-closing of FAO Schwarz, the greatest name in American toys, was potentially almost as big a symbolic story as the toppling of the Twin Towers. This U.S. consumer icon nearly went belly up trying to compete in malls against the Walmarts and Toys 'R Us shops, their prices subsidized by much lower labor costs, mainly from China. With a presidential U.S. election brewing, will American politicians be able to stay cool when protectionist fever heats up? Don't bet on it.

In conclusion: Watch how China handles its muscular new stardom, pray for Musharraf (and even Koizumi), don't be surprised if the Muslim moderate proves at least as pivotal a figure as the brave American soldier, and get ready for more Asia-bashing in America as we in America stagger toward the presidential election finish line.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Tom Plate is a professor of Policy and Communication Studies at UCLA. He is a regular columnist for the Los Angeles Times Syndicate International, the South China Morning Post, The Straits Times and the Honolulu Advertiser. He is a member of the World Economic Forum, and the Pacific Council on International policy. The author of five books, he has worked at TIME, the Los Angeles Times and the Daily Mail of London. He established the Asia Pacific Media Network in 1998 and was its director until 2003.

For publication and reprint rights, contact Tom Plate at tplate@ucla.edu or John Simpson (john.simpson@latsi.com) of the Los Angeles Times Syndicate International.

The views expressed above are those of the author and are not necessarily those of AsiaMedia or the UCLA Asia Institute.