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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.

But the real measure of Beijing's diplomatic charm offensive is the blossoming of pride and confidence within overseas Chinese communities. The estimated 30 million ethnic Chinese in Southeast Asia have suffered discrimination and episodic violence, and so they have historically laid low. Now they celebrate their heritage and are frequently found at the center of today's booming trade with China. "Having Chinese blood," as the Thais call it, provides the cache of, say, a Bostonian running for mayor on his Irish heritage: It's not everything, but it sure helps.

Beijing likes to play up the connection. Flaunting their ethnic Chinese roots, Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and former Philippine President Corizon Aquino have made pilgrimages to their ancestral homes during official visits to China. In Thailand, 60% to 80% of the members of parliament are believed to have at least some Chinese blood -- as do the last three prime ministers.

And where is the U.S. in all this? At the highest levels, distracted. In the last year, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice delayed by three months a planned trip to Australia, missed the opening day of an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in South Korea and skipped the region's annual gathering of foreign ministers in Laos.

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.

State Department officials stress that Rice and her deputy, Robert B. Zoellick, have made a combined eight trips to Asia, but in diplomacy, where showing up is half the job, it's the meetings she's missed that people here remember. Worse, the sentiment expressed in South Korea, Thailand, the Philippines and Australia this spring was remarkably constant: America cares about its issues, not about ours. The Bush administration's poor image is an added drag on American ambitions. In May alone, the headlines included: "UN: U.S. Should Close Guantanamo Facility" (Philippine Star); "Baghdad Bombings Kill 18" (Bangkok Post); "Dozens of [Afghan] Civilians Feared Killed in U.S. Strike" (Canberra Times).

Meanwhile, China doesn't mention human rights and demands little more than stability, open trade and support for its claim to Taiwan. History has taught us that once powerful countries feel secure and confident, they often become emboldened and seek to change the rules of the international order in their favor. If China emerges from its historic transition as Asia's premier economic and political player, it will certainly want to use its added political leverage to further its interests. Might it, for example, pursue more aggressively its claims to disputed islands in the South and East China Seas?

If those interests conflict with ours, an America with diminished influence could find its options severely limited.

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