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East-West Center is bridge to global potential in Asia

By Jay Fidell

LAST UPDATED: 2:26 p.m. HST, Aug 5, 2011

The East-West Center is under attack, and there are those in Congress who would like to see it eliminated. Our delegation defends the center, but what will happen when our senior senator isn't there? It's an icon of our long-standing connection with Asia, and we can't afford to lose it.

When you attack the center, you attack Hawaii's global prospects. Funny thing, we didn't hear howls of protest when the attack surfaced in the House. That's either because we're optimistic that the delegation will prevail there or in the Senate, or because we're not watching.

The center is a key element in our bridge to Asia. It stands alongside the Asia Pacific Center for Security Studies at Fort DeRussy and Pacific Forum of the Center for Strategic and International Studies downtown, which are also dedicated to excellence on the bridge.

There are other elements, too. At the University of Hawaii we have the Center for Pacific and Asian Studies, the international LLM program and Asia law courses at the law school, and the executive MBA program at the Shidler Business College in Vietnam. We have Asia experts at Hawaii Pacific University, Punahou and the U.S. Pacific Command, or PACOM. We have trade associations like the Hawaii Pacific Export Council and various chambers of commerce connecting us with Asian countries.

We have the China Seminar and a host of experts in Asian history and language. We have local companies doing business with Asia. We have charitable organizations doing good works in Asia. We have expatriates all over Asia — our citizen ambassadors, all elements of the bridge.

But these elements are in silo configuration. To build a better bridge, we need to bring them together under a coordinated leadership or coalition. That remains the greatest challenge.

There is no easy path. APEC is coming in November. It's an international event and not intended to be a game-changer for the state. Perhaps this would be different if the State Department felt Hawaii had greater expertise in Asia. We should take APEC as a wake-up call, and a lesson that we need to distinguish ourselves as experts on Asia so Washington would see how good we are.

We do have attributes that can help us achieve this distinction. We have a large number of Asian people, the progeny of the melting pot. That alone is not a bridge to Asia, but it can help us grow an impressive expertise. Add to that other academicians recruited from elsewhere, including Asia, and we can achieve a level of cultural know-how that will attract the world's attention.

Let's be an interpreter of business and diplomacy in Asia. We have the lawyers, mediators and arbitrators, so let's become a center for arbitration and mediation of Asia business disputes. We have many retired diplomatic and military experts, so let's develop a community of analysts.

Lt. Gov. Brian Schatz gets it, and recently made a multipurpose trip to Beijing — we need our top officials to make these connections so that we can follow. We also need more local media coverage of Hawaii events and business in Asia. Wouldn't it be great if we had bureaus there?

Direct flights by China Eastern Airlines start next week. With direct flights there is no excuse: Our airports must finally have Chinese signs. Remember that those flights will go both ways, servicing not only inbound tourists, but also outbound pioneers working to build the bridge.

Hawaii's familiarity with Asia is of enormous value, and we should capitalize on it as a new industry. We should see it as an opportunity for our kids and encourage careers in diplomacy. Then, wherever they are, they can help Hawaii build the bridge. What could be a greater gift?

Let's go global. Darren Kimura of Sopogy has shown the skill to sell high-tech solar overseas, this time in Thailand for $500 million. And Pat Sullivan of Oceanit has shown the vision to take local tech to the Paris Air Show. These achievements demonstrate that Hawaii can go anywhere.

The bridge for Hawaii is right here, ready to come together. The risk is that competing bridges could leave us behind. We should demand continued funding for the center. After all, the soft power of the center is to Asia-Pacific diplomacy as Pearl Harbor is to military presence.

The center is a key element of our special bridge to Asia, and its loss would be profound for all of us. So the next time you hear about an attack on its funding, be sure to howl in protest.

Jay Fidell, a longtime business lawyer, founded ThinkTech Hawaii, a digital media company that reports on Hawaii's tech and energy sectors of the economy. Reach him at

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