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Southeast Asia's new best friend

China is making impressive economic inroads among nations where the U.S. once had all the clout.

June 17, 2006|Tyler Marshall | TYLER MARSHALL, a former Times foreign correspondent, visited Asia in May on a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

Bangkok — THE MAPS SPREAD ACROSS the desk of senior Thai trade official Pisanu Rienmahasarn show an important piece of Southeast Asia's future: a highway that, when it opens next year, will run more than 1,000 miles from Kunming in southwestern China, through Laos, to the ports of southern Thailand and beyond.

The road is part of a network that will bind China closer to Southeast Asia, reviving an age-old trade route and building a sense of common regional destiny. It's a sign of the times that Pisanu, who was educated at Duke University and speaks perfect English, now spends more time speaking Chinese.

Amid the din of war in the Middle East, genocide in Darfur and anti-American rhetoric almost everywhere, it's easy not to hear the strange noise coming out of Southeast Asia. But listen: It's the sound of China quietly nibbling at America's lunch in a region that once saw the power of the United States as unchallenged.

Since America's last war in Asia ended with the fall of Saigon in 1975, the U.S. has presided over the region's security with the help of Cold War-era treaties with five countries -- Japan, South Korea, Thailand, the Philippines and Australia. Today, five of America's top 10 trading partners are in Asia, and U.S. military dominance is clear. Although China's modernization is not a zero-sum game -- American companies and consumers gain enormously from its efficiencies -- Beijing's economic clout is clearly growing, and with it, political influence. So far, Beijing has asked little of its neighbors. But the $64,000 question is this: What will China want of the region once it completes its economic transformation, consolidates its power and feels confident to ask for more?

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday June 23, 2006 Home Edition California Part B Page 13 Editorial Pages Desk 1 inches; 58 words Type of Material: Correction
China: An article on Saturday about China's clout in Southeast Asia referred to "America's last war in Asia" as being in Vietnam. Although Afghanistan and Iraq are part of the continent of Asia -- a geographical designation that begins at the Ural Mountains -- the reference was intended to refer to a cultural and political definition of Asia.

The changes underway here are mostly below the radar. They aren't the stuff of headlines, and they don't come with bombs or rocket-propelled grenades. But they're remolding the region's political landscape in ways that Americans ignore at their peril. At $130 billion, China's trade with Southeast Asia last year was less than America's $148 billion -- but not for long. Last year, Chinese trade jumped 20% -- over twice the U.S. rate -- and few expect that pace to taper off anytime soon.

In this region, economics is an inseparable component of geopolitics. And across Asia, opinion polls consistently find China with a better image than the U.S. Even in Australia, one of America's truest allies anywhere, a survey last year by the respected Lowy Institute found twice as many Australians considered U.S. policies to be a potential threat as thought the rise of China posed dangers. Officially, no Asian capital is being asked to choose between Washington and Beijing. And with both powers stretched to their limit -- China by its explosive growth, the U.S. by its all-encompassing war on terror -- neither is interested in confrontation. Still, Chinese influence could easily displace American clout as much by default as by design.

Thailand's bonds with China are a good example. It's not exactly Anschluss, but Thailand's exports to China jumped by a third last year, and fast-warming political links assure Beijing a place in Bangkok's future far greater than most in Washington realize. Sure, the U.S. remains both Thailand's biggest export market and a bona fide treaty ally, but the Sino-Thai links are growing as fast as the proliferating Chinese tour groups that crowd through the Thai Royal Palace grounds each day.

The picture is similar in the Philippines, another U.S. treaty ally. A new museum celebrating Chinese-Filipino heritage recently opened in central Manila. Philippine exports to China are growing at an annual clip of 50% to 60%, and a series of economic, political and cultural agreements will guarantee China a bigger role in a nation struggling to keep itself afloat in an increasingly competitive global economy.

In Australia, trade with Beijing has so boosted the economy that pundits dubbed last year's tax reduction "the China tax cut." The boom includes a major deal struck last April to deliver uranium to China's nuclear power plants and a $25-billion contract to sell Beijing liquid natural gas.

In South Korea, China has already displaced the U.S. as the largest single trading partner, and politically, Seoul is more comfortable with Beijing's more measured approach to defusing the North Korean nuclear crisis than with the Bush administration's tougher line.

Beijing's diplomatic message to Asia is fundamentally reassuring: Let's get rich together. China's modernization can only succeed if its neighbors also grow prosperous. That's a far cry from the ideological clashes of a generation ago, when from behind its bamboo curtain, China bankrolled leftist groups to foment revolution in the capitalist Asian nations. Now, no Thai official lies awake at night fearing -- as some Pentagon rhetoric still implies -- that the People's Liberation Army will one day rumble down the Kunming-Bangkok highway to lay waste to their nation.

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