How deeply will East Asia's current economic recession cut? How far will it pull down the rest of the global economy? No one yet has an answer. But it is clear that the recession will have a huge impact on the balance of power around the Pacific Rim, including the contest for influence between American and Chinese power in the region.
Much will hang on the stability of South Korea, whose economy is 11th-largest in the world, and whose contest against North Korea has been an intense focus in the contest between Beijing and Washington. In South Korea, all eyes are turned to President-elect Kim Dae Jung.
Mr. Kim has a unique opportunity to take the tough steps mandated by the International Monetary Fund, in return for the generous support it has extended to Seoul. Unlike his predecessors, Kim owes few or no favors to the bosses of the massive Korean business conglomerates, whose past ability to get vast government-backed loans for questionable investments was a major cause of the crisis.
And unlike his predecessors, Kim has thus far enjoyed good relations with labor unions. Kim also is in the politically happy situation of being able to blame all of his country's economic woes on the misdeeds of his predecessors.
His support in the National Assembly is weak. But the former ruling party also is in disarray. And if, after he takes office Feb. 25, he acts boldly - to stem South Korea's economic decline and to work toward reunification with North Korea - then he could emerge as a national hero, and one of East Asia's most important leaders. This could count as a great victory for the forces of democracy in a region where such forces still are young and fragile.
Kim can't expect much support from inspired political leadership anywhere else in East Asia. Indonesia, where half a million people have been put out of work in the past few months, will hold its next general election in March. President Suharto likely will run unopposed for his seventh five-year term, and he hasn't yet allowed any credible political successor to emerge - which leaves the country's leadership in question.
The Philippines, too, will have a presidential poll in May, its second since the fall of dictator Ferdinand Marcos. It's unclear whether democracy or some degree of chaos will win out in that crowded contest.
The Tokyo markets, like those in China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, have been spared the worst of the crisis ripping through other East Asian economies. But Tokyo is the "first world" nexus point through which, if it happens, the Asian crisis will go global. In Tokyo, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party continues with its business-as-usual muddle and its close relations with banks and conglomerates, while the main opposition party is breaking apart.
All of this presages problems ahead for the world economy. Problems, too, for the complex web of bilateral arrangements through which US power is projected in the region. A rise of local nationalism, expressed against the dominance of Western financial institutions, could result - even, perhaps, from a professed democrat like Kim Dae Jung.
China's vulnerable, too
Those in Beijing hoping to profit from the current economic and political woes of their pro-American neighbors may be disappointed. Two economic forums held by the Communist leadership at the end of the year called for tough belt-tightening there, which could involve layoffs for some tens of millions of Chinese workers.
What happens in East Asia will affect us all - both economically and politically. The toughest decisions will be made not by bankers, but by local political leaders. For those reasons, as we approach the Chinese calendar's "Year of the Tiger," we should keep a close watch on the actions of Kim Dae Jung and his counterparts in Tokyo and elsewhere in the region.
* Helena Cobban writes on foreign affairs from Washington.