A banner year for Asia

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EAST ASIA - what a remarkable region! From mainland China across to Japan and down through the Philippines, over to Hong Kong, Singapore, the two Koreas, Taiwan, there is a remarkable momentum under way that is transforming the area politically, culturally, and most of all, economically. In terms of continuing economic and political advance, 1987 - with a few exceptions - was essentially a good year for East Asia. 1988, for all the concerns expressed about the progress of the world economy, looks to be another successful year for this important region, with its millions of peoples and increasingly diversified economies.

East Asia's continuing gains should come as no surprise. The 1980s, after all, have been Asia's decade. The region has had the world's fastest economic growth during this decade. Communist China loosened the reins over its once rigidly controlled economy. There has been a movement toward democracy or at least political reform in the Philippines and Taiwan. In South Korea, the recent direct presidential election helps clear the way for next year's Olympic Games there.

Problem areas persist: Singapore and Indonesia seem less tolerant of democratic ideals; North Korea and Vietnam have yet to move toward political reform, although a new generation of bureaucrats is coming to the fore in both countries.

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What lies ahead for Asia? In part, that will depend on changes elsewhere. East Asia has had a major ally with the Reagan administration, with its initial California and West Coast orientation.

A new Democratic president would likely be more domestic-oriented, perhaps more open to tough trade legislation. Nor would George Bush or Robert Dole necessarily be as Asia-oriented as has been the Reagan White House.

But perhaps that won't matter much to Asia. Its transformation continues regardless of what is happening elsewhere. Japan, for example, just announced it will increase spending next year by almost 5 percent. Its growth rate will be around 4 percent. Compare that to the sobering mood in the United States.

In Taiwan, meanwhile, a number of carmakers and other industrialists would like to follow the South Koreans into the US market. Asian nations will continue to join together to oppose protectionism from Washington.

Prosperity is also working to overcome ethnic and racial prejudices within and among Asian nations. Technologically advanced societies learn that they must have unified work forces.

So make no mistake: Barring a major global economic downturn, East Asia will continue to dazzle the world with its fast-paced change and economic clout in 1988 and beyond.

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