Always expect the unexpected in politics


LOS ANGELES — Sometimes truly strange things happen in life. For those of us on America’s West Coast, who would have thought that Jerry Brown would become governor of California again? His first time out as our chief state executive (in his 30s, and full of rather unconventional ideas), they called him “Governor Moonbeam.” This was not meant as a compliment. The Brown precedent suggests: Don’t be surprised by a surprise. Here is our short list of possible unexpected developments. Don’t be surprised if:

• China is actually in serious trouble: This amazing economic success story has been flying along for two decades now like the proverbial phoenix from the ashes. But its first serious midcourse atmospheric disturbance is long overdue. Almost nothing else (save a power grab by the huge People’s Liberation Army) can explain the extreme uptightness and excessive crackdowns, the government’s ugly response to a jailed dissident writer receiving the country’s first ever Nobel Prize, and the testosterone pushiness of its military in the surrounding high seas. This is a country — we say here, though regretfully — that suddenly seems to be in trouble.

• Japan won’t take too much more of China pushing it around: The Japanese public was appalled by the government’s recent cave-in to Beijing on the Senkaku Islands crisis.

A Chinese fishing ship rammed into a Japan Coast Guard ship patrolling the waters around the islands, whose sovereignty is claimed by both Tokyo and Beijing. If I were Chinese President Hu Jintao, with all my domestic headaches (see above), I’d gently handle disputes with Japan for the foreseeable future. Those who study the history of the 19th and 20th century remind us that Japan, when pushed into a corner, will come out fighting. China may have more ships and planes, but Japan has better ships and planes. Think of Lexus when you think of Japan’s military. Cool it, Beijing: You may be cruising for a bruising.

• North Korea has to do something dramatic — and soon: Here’s our main economic beef with the “geniuses” in Pyongyang: When will they wake up? Decades ago, China threw out the communist economic playbook because it just wasn’t working. So did Vietnam, previously more Marxist-Leninist than Marx and Lenin combined. Now even Cuba looks to be waking up and hammering out a new economic model. Dear Comrades in North Korea: Don’t you get it? You cannot continue like this or you all wind up like Gorbachev: Out of power. That’s fine be me — but by you?

• Don’t bet against the U.S. president being a Democrat in 2013: For starters, Barack Obama is far from finished. As Karl Rove, legendary Republican strategist, argued in The Wall Street Journal recently, sitting presidents are not that easy to unseat. For one thing, the Republicans would have to nominate a figure that doesn’t scare half the country to death. That should eliminate Sarah Palin. Besides, if Obama falters, don’t bet against the presidential resurrection of Hillary Clinton, now performing so skillfully as Obama’s secretary of state. Maybe the nomination should have been hers two years ago. Maybe it will be in 2012. And don’t put it past this determined woman to beat the brains out of anyone the other guys put up. The former first lady and U.S. senator from New York is aging with unusual political grace. Don’t be surprised by a surprise re-emergence.

• Watch the Wall Street Journal topple the New York Times: Speaking of the WSJ, a lot of us American journalists might owe proprietor Rupert Murdoch an apology. Most predicted a steep spiral downturn when his News Corporation bought the paper in 2007. The opposite has taken place. The old Aussie has poured a near fortune into the quality and quantity of the news coverage. While The New York Times still has stellar correspondents like Keith Bradsher in Asia and superb columnists like Nicholas Kristof in New York, the total WSJ package has moved into the No. 1 spot in America. What a surprise — and from Murdoch. Who would have thought that would happen?

• Watch that South Korean diplomat garner a second term: Until recently, journalists in New York were having such a fun time beating up on U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon. But the quiet, self-effacing foreign minister of South Korea is showing people that sheer hard work and sincere commitment can mean a lot in public life. At the moment, he is almost a shoo-in to win a second five-year term. If it happens, it couldn’t happen to a nicer man. So — don’t be surprised!

Tom Plate is a journalist and columnist, and was recently named Distinguished Scholar of Asian and Pacific Studies at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. He is the author of “Conversations With Lee Kuan Yew.” © 2010 Pacific Perspectives Media Center, Beverly Hills, Calif.