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An American Election That Also Belongs to the World

Asians, watching a U.S. race that will greatly affect them, are leaning toward Bush.

August 02, 2000|TOM PLATE | Times contributing editor Tom Plate's column runs Wednesdays. E-mail:

Many Asians might wish they could vote in the U.S. come November, for the election of the next president can affect Asians more directly than who becomes the next head of the United Nations, let's say, or of the Assn. of Southeast Asian Nations, or even a top official in their own country. As long as the United States remains the sole superpower, no American presidential election is just a domestic event.

Many Asians yearn for an American president who sees the region as vital--and who comes to that realization not in his second term, as did Clinton, but right from the start. It is commonly said in Asia that the United States sleep-walked through the early stages of the Asian financial crisis, thus worsening the trauma. Certainly, it's not just the Thais who take that view but even the Japanese, with their own unsteady economic performance under fire from Washington and elsewhere. Yes, they have lately warmed to President Clinton for his charm, his fast brain and, late in his second term, his thoughtful touches, such as the unexpected appearance at the state funeral for Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi. But they have often grumbled about Clinton's risky improvisational approach to Asia. They have complained about having had almost no one to talk to in this administration, finding almost no one close to the president who had a solid handle on, or even a kind word for, Japan, a valued ally that's far more strategically central to the U.S. than China. They also attribute the periodic bashing of Japan--for its perennially yawning trade surplus with the U.S.--to the behind-the-American-scenes influence of organized labor. Perhaps because of that alone--the Japanese belief that Vice President Al Gore would be the labor movement's political prisoner--many Japanese, especially in official and high-end circles, are quietly rooting for Gov. George W. Bush to win in the fall.

In many respects, the Chinese see eye to eye with their Japanese rivals. The Chinese appreciate Clinton's state visit in 1998, but they also worry that Gore, who has given their half of the world scant attention over the years, is a prisoner not just of the labor movement but also of Western human-rights activists. Understandably, they are far more comfortable dealing with American businesses, which in their view make decisions about China out of rational economic interests rather than emotional or idealistic ones. Yes, it's true, the Chinese practice a very diluted brand of Marxism at home these days. Yet in looking at events abroad, they often analyze things through familiar Marxist lenses. Simplifying tremendously, they tend to regard the GOP as the instrument of big American business, which, they believe, has the muscles and the checkbooks to keep any Republican president from getting overly anti-Chinese.

On the Korean Peninsula, they have mixed feelings about Clinton and the Democrats. Certainly South Korea and its bold president, Kim Dae Jung, benefited enormously from U.S. backing of the policy of peninsular engagement, which, given the recent summit in North Korea, looks now to be on the right track. Still, Koreans are generally uneasy with Democratic foreign policy, often finding it unpredictable, and tend to believe that the Republicans offer steadier American fare. This may be grossly unfair to the Democrats, but politics in Asia, as everywhere, is frequently a matter of perceptions.

And in Asia, with its emphasis on family and tradition, rising foreign figures are often graded more in terms of their heritage than their current policy positions. Gore is seen as being in Clinton's shadow--and Bush as being in his father's. Since many view the elder Bush as heir to the foreign policy tradition of Richard M. Nixon, who is as revered in many Asian circles as he is still reviled in many American ones, and of Henry Kissinger, whom the Chinese in particular regard as a great figure, Bush gets the edge.

To be sure, there are important doubts about Bush. By Asian standards, certainly, though 54, he seems worrisomely green for such a towering job. His selection of former Defense Secretary Dick Cheney as his running mate has gone over big in Asia, but not his early positions on issues of enormous sensitivity to the region. These include his boyish enthusiasm for a new U.S. missile defense system, which Asians believe would trigger a regional arms race, and for an in-your-mainland-face U.S. defense of Taiwan, a posture they fear could provoke China into the very conflict everyone wants to avoid. But Gore, alas, has carved out similar positions.

Asians have their fingers crossed that both candidates are merely posturing for votes and that each or the other will come to his senses when actually in office. Just because Asians can't vote for the next U.S. president won't prevent them from caring about the outcome. They can only envy Americans, who get to choose a leader not only for themselves but for the world.

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