LMU Asia scholar Tom Plate on L.A.’s ties to the continent, why Indonesia matters and his new book documenting Asia’s economic rise
“Geography is destiny,” says Loyola Marymount University’s Tom Plate— a preeminent scholar on contemporary Asia who found his calling by recognizing the strong economic and cultural ties that Los Angeles shares with the continent.
Plate, 69, began writing about Asia in 1996 as an op-ed columnist at the Los Angeles Times after serving as the paper’s editorial page editor for six years. He became an internationally syndicated columnist in 2001, with his work appearing in several large Asian newspapers and others in the United States.
Before joining the faculty at LMU as a distinguished scholar in its Asian and Pacific Studies Department, Plate taught at UCLA, was a senior fellow at USC and founded the nonprofit Pacific Perspectives Media Center. He is also founder and editor in chief of New Asia Media (asiamedia.lmu.edu), an online university publication of both scholarly and general interest.
Plate’s journalism on Asia has also led to nine nonfiction books. “Conversations with Lee Kuan Yew,” a 2011 book on the founding father of modern Singapore, won a People’s Choice award for nonfiction and has been translated into Korean, Armenian, Russian, Chinese, Taiwanese, Thai and Vietnamese. Other titles in Plate’s “Giants of Asia” book series have profiled United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Thai business magnate Thaksin Shinawatra and former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. “In the Middle of the Future,” a handpicked selection of more than 100 of Plate’s 1,000-plus columns on Asia, hit bookstore shelves this week.
Plate will speak about “In the Middle of the Future” during a Los Angeles World Affairs Council event on Tuesday at the Japanese American National Museum. — Gary Walker
What first drew your attention to Asia?
I think primarily being in Los Angeles and working at the Los Angeles Times. We face the Pacific, and then there is the tremendous ethnic diversity that we have. Also, [in the 1970s] there was a vacuum on reporting in Asia. I thought that if we started a column on Asia it would be a real contribution.
Do you think Angelinos are aware of Asia’s importance?
I think that we are more aware than our counterparts in New York and Chicago. We have Westminster in Orange County [a city with a large Vietnamese population], and there’s Koreatown and Little Saigon. There was a joke when I was on the faculty at UCLA, where some of the kids used to say it stood for “University of Caucasians Lost among Asians.” So we have thriving Asian populations here. In many ways, geography is destiny — and I think we forget that sometimes.
Is the rise of the local tech entrepreneurship corridor known as Silicon Beach having any impact China in terms of how it manufactures many tech products created in the United States?
I expect any change — if it happens — to be gradual. The experience in Asia is that as each country begins to develop it moves up the food chain. You wind up outsourcing different things to Burma or Indonesia, so there could be some outsourcing to those two countries or others as they develop. I find Indonesia to be the most interesting county in Asia at the moment.
In July, Indonesia [which has a larger Muslim population than any other country in the world] will be having its first one-man, one-vote presidential election. This is a huge development and could have an important impact on the rest of the Muslim world. Many scholars say if you could have a secular Indonesia with clean elections after being run for 30 years by the military, why couldn’t this happen in smaller Muslim countries? I personally think that it could have a contagious effect, not only in the immediate neighborhood but throughout the Muslim world. This is one of the biggest stories of 2014 in Asia, and I think it’s a failure of our media that it has not been reported.
What has been the impact of North Korea’s decisions to hold American citizens hostage and threaten the U.S.?
It’s enormously complicated. I think what’s going on right now is a generational war between [North Korean President] Kim Jong Un and allies of his father. As a nation that has been isolated, there is no exit from where they are. The Chinese and the Russians are sick of them. And I think that North Korea is one of President Obama’s five biggest foreign policy headaches.
How do you think President Obama has done on Asia foreign policy?
I think a lot of the things that people see as flaws in Obama are actually strengths. He is hesitant, but the flip side to that is that he isn’t George Bush taking us headlong into war. I think Obama is being more instinctive in his approach to foreign policy than he’s give credit for. Our foreign policy has been somewhat incoherent in Asia, and there’s still a lot more that we can do there.
You’ve written several books. Why “In the Middle of the Future”?
It was my [Singapore-based] publisher’s idea. They thought there might be some interest to use some of my columns to document the rise of Asia over the last 20 years from an American point of view and as reference book for scholars. At first I thought it was a crazy idea, but then I went back and looked at them, and I thought, ‘some of them aren’t so bad after all.’ I’ve refreshed them, and I think it works as a tapestry — a timeline of the mosaic of Asian history over the last 20 years.
What do you think made you the journalist that Asia’s leaders want to talk to?
I wasn’t a “hit and run” journalist … I was a ‘hit and stay’ journalist. After a while, [Asian leaders] knew that I was going to be around for a while and I think that helped me develop credibility with them. Journalism is about taking a snapshot — making a timely assessment through a filter with the tools that you have at the time. And if you stick to the fundamentals of journalism, you’ll be fine.
Plate speaks about his new book at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Japanese American National Museum, 100 N. Central Ave., Los Angeles. The event is hosted a Los Angeles World Affairs Council. Tickets are $15. Call (424) 258-6160 or visit lawac.org.