Wednesday, December 26, 2007 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Tom Plate / Syndicated columnist

In 2008, launch an Asia watch — from the comfort of your couch

LOS ANGELES — I constantly tell my students that if they only come to understand one area of the world fully, make it Asia. Why the emphasis on Asia, they ask? Well, here is just one of many reasons: In just a few years, something like 90 percent of all Ph.D-holding scientists and engineers will be living there.

Want more? "Each year," notes Kishore Mahbubani, dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, "India is introducing more gifted people into the global economy than any other society, with the possible exception of China."

Still not convinced? All right, try this: something like 1 billion Asians are Muslims (only about 200 million live in North Africa and Europe). So if you're interested in the 'Muslim world,' whatever that might mean, keep watching Asia.

But how best to maintain an intelligent and efficient personal Asia watch? Aside from the obvious travel, read and bookmark the best stuff available. Among the periodicals that students generally have not heard of, I recommend for Japan alone "The Oriental Economist," the consistently savvy monthly out of New York, and "Nekkei Weekly," the comprehensive business and political news magazine out of Tokyo. For China's view of the region, read the Beijing-based newspaper "China Daily." It arrives in the States ten days or so late, but it is indispensable, and often surprisingly entertaining. Better known, of course, are "The Far Eastern Economic Review" and "The Economist" — they are unavoidable, but, alas, sometimes Western-centric.

Leaving aside Asia's many vital news sites, especially "The Straits Times" of Singapore and "The South China Morning Post" (two terrific newspapers that despite individual shortcomings rival the quality of almost any Western paper), I tell my students to read serious books on Asia. Here are four that I just finished; they were so compelling that I intend to reread them next year.

1. THE NEW ASIAN HEMISPHERE: The Irresistible Shift of Global Power to the East by Kishore Mahbubani (Public Affairs Books). Singapore's educator and diplomat writes like Jonathan Swift and thinks like a chain-saw usefully massacring all sorts of Western sacred cows. His first book "Can Asians Think?" was a little masterpiece, and my students love it; this new one is deeper and even more thoughtful. Read this book for a surpassingly incisive sense of how a former Asian diplomat and current policy-school dean conceptualizes tricky but fateful relations between "the West and the rest."

2. ASIA, AMERICA, AND THE TRANSFORMATION OF GEOPOLITICS by William H. Overholt (Cambridge University Press/RAND Corporation). Overhot is the director of RAND's Center for Asia Pacific Policy and probably knows as much about Asia as anyone in the United States. His new book is a muscular, mind-expanding tour of the Asian geopolitics of today and tomorrow, told on an epic, intelligent scale. You don't want to travel any deeper into this century without having this book thoroughly encrypted into your DNA.

3. THE ELEPHANT AND THE DRAGON: The Rise of India and China and What It Means for All of Us by Robyn Meredith (Norton). Journalists typically offer the reader all the historical and geopolitical perspective of a play-by-play football announcer, if that. But Meredith, who holds down Forbes' Hong Kong bureau, is quite special. Her new book comparing and contrasting the rise of India and China is a monument to how wonderful truly incisive journalism can sometimes be. Her glittering talent for the telling of stories that are illuminating as well as entertaining gives this terrific book a zing that makes it endlessly engrossing.

4. THE RISK OF INFIDELITY INDEX: A Vincent Calvino Novel by Christopher G. Moore (Grove Press). An accomplished novelist can penetrate through life's surface reality and bring out unique word-pictures of profound meaning and clarity. Chris Moore's series of private-eye tales set in the full mysterious splendor of bubbling Bangkok, Thailand, remind us anew of how much meaning we miss out on when we don't worship true artists. Underneath Bangkok society is a deeply encrusted demiworld of hope, despair, corruption and courage that Moore, an American-born writer who has lived there for almost 20 years, paints with maestrolike Dickensian strokes.

Tom Plate is a board member of the Burkle Center on International Policy at UCLA. His column appears from time to time in The Japan Times and Mainichi Shimbun.

2007, Tom Plate


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