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Pacific Power Gets a West Coast Base

Institutions as diverse as Pepperdine and the city of Beverly Hills are responding to our fastest growing minority.

September 17, 1996|Tom Plate | Times columnist Tom Plate also teaches at UCLA. He can be reached by e-mail at:

It's one thing to observe history in the making; it's quite another to help make it. But for Americans on the West Coast, that's what's happening.The trend is called Pacific Power--I rather like the sound of that, don't you?--and it's a concept that works in three ways. "Pacific Power" denotes not only the rise of China, Japan, Korea and the many other fast-developing nations of the Asia-Pacific region, which may well be the single most significant contemporary development in world politics. It not only alludes to the emergence of Asian Americans as the United States' fastest growing minority group. Perhaps equally important, it also refers to the efforts of people on the West Coast to meet the Pacific challenge of our time.

Take, for example, last week's rally of Asian-Pacific organizations in front of City Hall. It was absolutely eye-popping, if all but ignored, predictably, by the national news media. Are Asian Americans suddenly getting it together? "We don't have the same common language, like Latinos," explains Warren Furutani, president and CEO of the Asian-Pacific Policy and Planning Council. "But since the external community can't tell the difference among Asians, we sort of get defined externally." Furutani was talking about the tendency of non-Asians to lump every kind of Asian into one, as if they are all alike. Asians themselves don't do that, of course; Koreans and Japanese think of themselves as different as the Irish from the French. And so on. But since a lot of non-Asians make that mistake, Asian Americans figure they might as well try to make the best of it.

Last week, the Asian protesters complained about President Clinton's Machiavellian refusal to veto the so-called welfare reform bill, which eliminates a lot of federal benefits for legal immigrants. While niftily robbing Republicans of a campaign issue, it stoked the wildfires of resentment among immigrant groups that work hard, play fair and pay taxes, too. Furutani explained why the turnout for the rally was so good: "Welfare reform just smacked everyone between the eyes."

But will Asian Americans ever get the respect they deserve? Maybe the growing potency of the Asia-Pacific region in world politics and trade might just connect the dots in people's minds. In retrospect, Tricky Dick was so right when he moved to dethaw relations with the People's Republic of China in 1972, and thus it is only fitting that the Richard Nixon Library, founded in 1990 in Yorba Linda, is planning to give its work a major Asia-Pacific dimension. Similarly, the weekend before last, the L.A.-based Pacific Council on International Policy organized a glittering retreat in San Francisco that attracted about 125 members--lawyers, corporate executives, media figures and university professors not only from California but from Europe, Asia and Latin America as well. Those assembled largely shared the view, as do the members of the Japan-America Society of Southern California and the Asia Society here, that the U.S. approach to foreign relations needs the balance of a more fully developed Asia-Pacific sensitivity and orientation.

Another institution aware of Pacific Power is Malibu-based Pepperdine University, which is creating a new school of public policy that will emphasize PacRim studies. Says Pepperdine President David Davenport of his new graduate school, scheduled to open next year: "We're not a big place, can't hope to do everything with our international curriculum. So our public policy school will focus on the Asia-Pacific region as its absolute first priority. This will be its contribution to the community." It could prove invaluable. Next--and don't laugh, please--the Beverly Hills City Council, heretofore not highly involved in foreign policy (thankfully), is getting into the act (helpfully). It's exploring the possibility of converting the city's historic but now all-but-unused 55-room Greystone Mansion, whose surrounding acreage serves as a public park, into a big-time PacRim center. Last week, in an informal meeting attended by Beverly Hills officials as well as representatives of the new UCLA School of Public Policy and Social Research, special attendee Kenichi Ohmae, the international management guru based in Tokyo, gave his blessing to the ambitious project. Says Ohmae of the extremely tentatively named Pacific Rim Economic Institute: "Beverly Hills is a fantastic location for the amalgamation of all our PacRim entrepreneurs, from Malaysia to Hollywood, in one place. It could become the PacRim focal point--a permanent world-class salon." Adds top Playboy Enterprises executive Richard Rosenzweig, who is an active civic force in Beverly Hills and one of the proposed institute's earliest enthusiasts: "I am convinced that Los Angeles can serve as the world capital of the PacRim. What we have in mind is not another think tank like Rand, but the epitome of an institution for international networking at the highest level."

America cannot go on ignoring the obvious: Asia Pacific is the world's fastest-growing region, and Asians are America's fastest-growing minority. The good news is that some alert and important West Coast institutions and groups are responding to these powerful stimuli with imagination and enterprise. They're trying to help make history. Call it, if you don't mind, Pacific Power.

Times columnist Tom Plate teaches at UCLA. E-mail:

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