THE PLATE COLUMN: Skating on Thin Ice

Japan TimesTOM PLATE WRITES IN HIS SYNDICATED COLUMN APPEARING IN THE JAPAN TIMES (Tokyo) – Like so many people around the world, I was totally blown away not only by Olympic skater Kim Yuna’s performance on the ice in Sochi, but even more so by her cool and classy performance off of it. While her fellow Korean countrymen complained vociferously that their national idol had been robbed of the gold medal for women’s figure skating, Kim, 23, graciously and gratefully accepted the runner-up silver without a hint of whine.

How rare is this in sports – or, now that one thinks of it, in politics?

Take Ms. Kim’s suddenly troubled neighborhood of East Asia. Everyone knows the details. The quarrels over paternity and ownership of islands (which may or may not be so rich in minerals and thus scarcely worth fighting over). The growing tension on the high seas. The new claims – by China – of air exclusion zones.  It is anything but a pretty picture – especially as compared, of course, to Yuna.

I sometimes liken to mad elephants the big powers of East Asia – China and Japan, of course, but as well South Korea (the world’s 12th largest economy, after all) – and not to mention Russia. Who can bellow the loudest? Who has the biggest tusk in this neck of the global jungle? It is all so dreary and primitive and unnecessary.

The time has come for everyone to pull back, take stock, and reflect quietly and deeply on what has gotten them to where they are: regional peace for decade after decade; diplomacy and consultation; and trade and development.

The rise of Asia has also been possible due to the steadying presence of the U.S. as a Pacific power. Beijing needs to carefully consider what it wishes for: Efforts to try to reduce the American role might only serve to alarm Tokyo, which at the moment remains a non-nuclear power. A change in that status might create even bigger problems for China than the bobbing around of the U.S. Seventh Fleet.

The stakes are serious, and the downside of a serious clash is an explosion that could rock the world. A sometimes-pushy China, after all, is a nuclear power with a growing navy; a sometimes-prideful Tokyo has a very modern military that should not be messed with, and a sometimes-sour Seoul has its own issues that sometimes conflict with everyone’s.

At stake, for sure, are the region’s enormously impressive post World War II surge in prosperity — and its plausible claim to become the geopolitical center of the 21st century, as per Singapore’s Kishore Mahbubani and other deep thinkers.

Instead, we now look to have to mark 2014 as a perilous year of living dangerously, when instead East Asia ought to be cashing in on its wealth and prominence, to offer the world inspired leadership and cosmopolitan example.

China and Japan, the world’s second and third largest economies, and South Korea (with one of the fastest-rising ones) owe it to themselves and the emerging global order to stop behaving as if expecting territorial ‘entitlements’ to be non-negotiable. They must accept the responsibilities of leadership and show that their ancient and fine cultures are in fact sources of wisdom and perspective.

Which brings us back to the elegant and refined Olympian skater Kim Yuna.  Like Li Na, the skilled professional tennis star from China, Kim displays the best traits of her national heritage.

In fact, Ms. Kim’s extraordinary comportment has echoes of the resilient calm of another famous South Korean, now no longer with us: former ROK President Kim Dae Jung. This is how the eloquent George Yeo, former foreign minister of Singapore, once described the 2000 Nobel Prize winner’s inner “spiritual strengths”: “When the whole world is in a swirl, you need someone to lead who has deep calm inside.”

Syndicated columnist and U.S. journalist Tom Plate’s latest book in “In the Middle of the Future,” about the rise of Asia. He is also the author of the ‘Giants of Asia’ book series. © 2014 Pacific Perspectives Media Center. This column first appeared in the Khaleej Times of Dubai, U.A.E.

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