LOS ANGELES – Like so many people around the world, I was totally blown away not only by Olympic skater Yuna Kim’s performance on the ice in Sochi but even more so by her cool and classy performance off 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 hunt of whine.
How rare is this in sports or, for that matter, in politics?
Take 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.
I sometimes liken to mad elephants the big powers of East Asia — China and Japan, of course, but also South Korea (the world’s 12th-largest economy) and Russia. Who can bellow the loudest? Who has the biggest tusks in this neck of the global jungle? It is all so dreary.
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 United States as a Pacific power. Beijing needs to weight carefully 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 U.S. 7th 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. Instead, we now look to marking 2014 as a perilous year of living dangerously. East Asia ought to be cashing in on its wealth and prominence, to offer the world inspired leadership.
China and Japan, the world’s second- and third-largest economies, and South Korea owe it to themselves and the emerging global order to stop behaving as if their territorial “entitlements” were 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 Yuna Kim. Like the killed professional tennis star from China, Li Na, Kim displays the best traits of her national heritage.
Kim’s extraordinary comportment has echoes of the resilient calm of another famous South Korean, the late 2000 Nobel Peace Prize winner and former South Korean President Kim Dae-jung, whom George Yeo, Singapore’s former foreign minister, once lauded: “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 is “In the Middle of the Future,” about the rise of Asia. © 2014 Pacific Perspectives Media Center.