Witness to a Decade That Redefined Southeast Asia

Article excerpt

As he leaves his post in Bangkok, a correspondent looks at how a rising China has changed the Southeast Asia region after 9/11.

It was the summer of 2001. I was covering an election in East Timor, a newly minted nation at the end of the world. It was my first assignment for the Monitor, the start of a decade of reporting in Southeast Asia, filing hundreds of stories from across a diverse region of 600 million people.

Two years earlier, East Timor had broken free of Indonesia's brutal occupation. It now aspired to join the ranks of global democracies, including the mightiest of all, the freedom-loving United States. Never mind that Washington had backed Indonesia's dictator General Suharto and other Asian strongmen. The cold war was over, Suharto was gone, and Southeast Asia's tiger economies were roaring again, all under the protection of the US security umbrella.

Not long after, the geopolitical world spun on its axis.

First came the shocking attacks of Sept. 11, which redefined US foreign-policy goals. Exactly three months later, China joined the World Trade Organization, an economic milestone. The pace of China's exports soared, and its dollar reserves began piling up.

To my mind, we're still living in the shadow of these two historical markers.

Both events have had lasting consequences in Southeast Asia, where a resurgent China has begun to chip away at decades of US preeminence in trade, aid, and diplomacy. Some countries are firmly in China's sphere of influence: Cambodia, Burma (Myanmar). Others are hedging their pro-US stance: Thailand, the Philippines. Only Vietnam appears to be rowing in the opposite direction by embracing Washington, its former enemy.

Of course, China's economic rise predated Al Qaeda's attacks on US soil. It makes sense for Southeast Asian leaders to bind their economies to China's and to cooperate on other issues. Once again, China is becoming the center of gravity in Asia.

But the perception in Asia was that Washington was too distracted by waging wars to raise its game vis-a-vis China. President Bush was a no-show at regional summits, and his envoys didn't come bearing bilateral trade deals or new investments as Chinese leaders did.

Instead, they talked terrorism, security, and Islam, and were viewed with deep suspicion by Muslims in the region.

China's 'strong benign partner' approach

China wants to be seen as a "strong benign partner" to the region, a Malaysian defense strategist told me in 2005.

"What's less certain is that once China becomes that strong power and sits, let's say, shoulder to shoulder with the US, how will it behave then?" he asked.

That question still echoes through the corridors of power in Southeast Asia. China has begun testing its first aircraft carrier, while pressing its claims to islands in the South China Sea. The debt-saddled US economy is underwater. The rising-China/declining- US narrative has become a global talking point.

Yet on the streets of Bangkok and Singapore, the mood is more upbeat. Many people have Chinese roots and are proud to see China back on its feet. Others are simply happy to get a piece of the action as China's economy sucks in more goods and services from the region.

On the outskirts of Bangkok, I spent a day with Varnee Ross, the daughter of a Thai-Chinese tycoon. Her private school caters to elite Thais who want to prepare their kids for a more Chinacentric world. In the classroom, I heard young children chant in Mandarin, then switch to English in their next class. During recess, they revert to their native Thai.

English is still the global language. But Mandarin is making rapid inroads, particularly in countries that trade heavily with China.

Last year, China bought around $40 billion in goods from Thailand, more than from Japan, Europe, and the US. Not surprisingly, Thai professionals see learning to speak Mandarin as a way to get ahead. …