East Asian Crossroads

If there was ever a case to be made for too much of a good thing, I submit for your consideration all the elections due to take place in East Asia this year.

This weekend, to start the madness off, Taiwan's voters will choose a presidential successor to the inimitable Lee Teng-hui. The results could profoundly affect the bilateral relationship with China - and roil regional tensions.

Then there are parliamentary elections next month in South Korea that could have the effect of undermining Kim Dae Jung's vital reforms and bringing back a contagious Asian flu. Sometime in the next few months, Japan's prime minister, Keizo Obuchi, will call a national election to determine the political makeup of a new Diet and the future of an administration that has been far from the least effective among the five that have held office over the past six years. Then there is the high-stakes but subterranean succession struggle now in motion in China. The outcome is just as unpredictable as any of the region's more visible contests.

Each of these political struggles offers the world, not just the region, the potential for considerable gain - or loss. In Taiwan, for example, the worst outcome of Saturday's election would be military conflict. That would destabilize the region and divert Asia's focus from financial recovery. And it could indeed happen if the winner of the tight three-man race were to declare formal independence from the mainland.

That's not too likely to happen in the foreseeable future, no matter who wins. However, Beijing has been blustering against the Democratic Progressive Party candidacy of Chen Shui-bian, whose party in the past has supported independence. For the independence-minded Taiwanese, that's almost reason enough to vote for him - just to kick sand in Beijing's face.

In truth, the tough but level-headed former Taipei mayor might be just the man to kick start cross-strait negotiations, not unlike a certain United States president who did just that for his country in 1972. Chen holds the one card that Beijing doesn't want Taiwan to play: the independence card.

For the rest of the world, the least desirable outcome of the South Korean parliamentary election April 13 would be one that rebuffed President Kim Dae Jung's Millennium Democratic Party. That could spell the end of the ongoing structural reform in South Korea that has recharged the nation's economic batteries and lit up the East Asian post-flu recovery scene. While the reform government has done much, more needs to be done.

During an authoritative panel discussion titled "How Vulnerable Is East Asia?" - part of a Milken Institute conference on the world economy held in Los Angeles last week - economist Hilton Root, a former Wharton School professor and a senior fellow at Milken, painted the worrisome picture of a Korean recovery more skin-deep than deeply rooted. South Korea's powerful chaebols - powerful conglomerates - are still digging out from mammoth debt, the country has too few families owning much too much wealth and corruption continues to despoil the nation's political and legal system. Root doubts the Korean recovery is sustainable even if Kim emerges stronger than ever. Yet many people worry that, without such a mandate, South Korea would quickly slip into reverse.

And for the world, probably the best outcome of the Japanese Diet elections later this year would be a victory for incumbent Obuchi. He's hardly without faults or critics, and Japanese politics has been tarnished anew by corruption and malfeasance allegations involving a few of his aides. Yet the soft-spoken, pro-American politician has done more than any of his recent predecessors to gently push consensus-worshiping Japan in the direction of reform after almost a decade of recession. The world scarcely needs yet another prime minister who is to last in office little longer than cherry blossoms in the spring wind.

Asians also are watching the quiet political drama that's unfolding in Beijing. The incumbent team of President Jiang Zemin and Premier Zhu Rongji may not be the second coming of Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt, but at least they have avoided obvious blunders such as currency devaluation or military action, and they are serious about reforming the economy as well as reducing corruption.

The concern is that in the hands of the wrong kind of leadership, China is capable of generating internal chaos and triggering regional instability. Jiang faces party review during the next congress, two years away, so the succession process has already begun. In effect, Jiang is running for re-election, mainland-China style.

Indeed, in Asia right now, it seems that almost everyone is running for something. By the end of the year, many of the nations in East Asia, especially China, Japan, Korea and Taiwan, could be swirling from political change, which, taken altogether, may prove more than one region can handle.

Tom Plate teaches at the University of California, Los Angeles. He contributed this comment to the Los Angeles Times.