BANGKOK - A curious thing: clicking around
websites of US political parties and the State
Department reveals nothing on foreign policy. In the
long-term game of geopolitical chess being played on the
Southeast Asian board, rising stars China and India may
well gain the upper hand if the new US president fails
to take a longer view beyond Iraq and terrorism.
Politicians and State Department
officers wax lyrical about pressing short-term
challenges presented by Iraq and terrorism. Yet this
myopia may see US, and Western, influence atrophy in
Asia, where seismic geopolitical changes are taking
place, against a background of rising economic might,
with further-reaching, broader and deeper implications
than Iraq and terrorism. Of course states conduct
much foreign policy quietly, out of sight in the
diplomatic shadows. But that is no reason for the
absence of a broad outline of policy aims, even what
foreign policy is and why it is important - surely
something a largely insular US public needs to
US public preoccupation with Iraq
and terrorism has intensified obsession with the daily
news sound bite, at the expense of well-crafted,
farsighted strategy. Meanwhile in Asia a rising, brash,
confident China is flexing its diplomatic muscle, wooing
states around the region.
particular, once thought a key and unquestioning US
ally, is quietly sliding into China's warm, embracing
arms. Most Thai cabinet ministers, including Prime
Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, have, through their
respective families, significant investments in China.
Thai companies, many owned by savvy ethnic Chinese,
increasingly seek opportunities in their giant northern
Trade between the two is booming, as
Chinese firms increase their investment, Chinese
students flock to popular international schools such as
Assumption College, and Beijing eyes railways south to
the deepwater port Laem Chabang, near Bangkok, which is
closer to much of central China than China's booming and
snarled east coast.
Thailand's Charoen Pokphand
(CP), one of Southeast Asia's largest companies, has
been doing business with the Chinese Communist Party
since 1949, starting with a rice mill. Bangkok Bank
still has the largest foreign bank branch on Shanghai's
Bund waterfront - only recently have a few other foreign
banks gained token footholds on China's pre-eminent
address. Intriguingly, Thailand's Shanghai consulate is
in the Bangkok Bank building.
As one leaves
Bangkok Bank, eyes gaze upon Pudong's ever-changing,
soaring skyline on the opposing bank of Shanghai's
Huangpu River. Surrounded by shimmering office towers is
the CP-owned Super Brand Mall, one of China's largest.
Relations began warming three decades ago. In
the 1980s China promised to send troops if the
Vietnamese, leering over the Thai-Cambodian border,
surged west headed for Bangkok.
with the end of the Cold War, which coincided with a
booming economy in Southeast Asia translating to
increasing confidence. During this time Malaysia's then
prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad, increasingly chastised
the West publicly. And why not? With the communist
threat vanquished and money pouring in, he could afford
Had the United States launched its "war on
terrorism" in the 1970s or 1980s, Thailand would have
signed up immediately. As it turned out, Thaksin
initially opted for neutrality. Only under heavy
pressure did Bangkok later, against strong domestic
opposition, send a company of army engineers to
Afghanistan for a short tour, followed by a similar
deployment including medics to Iraq. No further
significant deployments, certainly not much-needed
infantry, are on the horizon.
Asian states have not rushed to the cause either.
Singapore plays its part passively, providing ports for
replenishing US ships and a few transport aircraft in
the Middle East. Yet its well-equipped armed forces
could easily deploy a combat brigade.
to launch a "war" as a guise for furthering geopolitical
aims under the opportunity presented by al-Qaeda's 2001
attacks overrode law enforcement. Handing the Federal
Bureau of Investigation (FBI) a global manhunt for the
perpetrators of history's greatest criminal act, while
offering a little groovy footage for TV networks, would
cast the US in a benign, stoical lingering light atop
the moral high ground.
However, war and invasion
potentially bring such spoils as breaking the
Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC)
cartel through opening Iraq's oil taps, furthering the
Anglo-American economic system, and cementing US power,
now at its peak. Even if successful, this strategy has
strained relations, permanently with many states, given
America's image a thuggish makeover and very likely
sowing the seeds for other long-term problems.
Indeed, would the US$250 billion spent on
invading and reforming Iraq have been better used
containing Saddam Hussein, financing the opposition and
researching alternative fuels? What would $100 billion
do for solar and fuel cells?
Instead, war has
fostered fear. Until European empires carved up
Southeast Asia, it was largely beholden to imperial
China, though culturally Indian influence remained
strong, curdling with Chinese and local cultures. With
both China and India rising fast combined with the
West's withdrawal over the past three decades, Southeast
Asia is once again a chessboard on which the Chinese and
Indian pieces are multiplying.
West remains a useful counterweight, yet US actions,
presumed intentions, bellicose statements and
uncompromising positions rub many in a region where
compromise and accommodation prevail, at least in
public, the wrong way.
On present trends, China
and India offer the largest markets and greatest
economic spoils, and it would seem little threat in
exchange for simple allegiance. Neither threatens to cut
aid or downgrade relations on an annual basis through
certification exercises, whereas the West, especially
the US, does, with demands on human rights, corruption,
human trafficking and narcotics.
India's rising influence is most visible regarding
Myanmar, which simply shrugs when the US and its allies
holler about human rights, dictatorship and drugs.
Actions speak, not words. China says little, yet does
much, selling weapons to Yangon, throwing in military
gifts and other aid. Its spies monitor signals
intelligence across the Indian Ocean from perches on
Myanmar's coastline, which offers fuel and stores for
passing Chinese navy warships.
Chinese firms are
increasing investment, from manufacturing to dams,
alongside legions of Chinese traders moving into the
country. A Chinese-financed river and rail route from
Yunnan to the Indian Ocean is offing that will hasten
exports while cutting import bills and times, especially
for Middle East oil.
Yet China does not have
Myanmar quite in its pocket. After October's putsch
stripping Khin Nyunt of power, Myanmar's leader General
Than Shwe almost immediately flew to Delhi, spending a
few days talking with Indian leaders. It seems Myanmar
is now taking a more balanced view, flirting with both
of its giant, competing neighbors.
close friendship with China is not surprising either.
Historically Thai kingdoms have always shown allegiance
to the Middle Kingdom, only going their own way when
China was weak or racked by strife and war, as it
periodically has been through history. Such allegiance
bought protection and trade at little cost. China's
current ascendance after a few centuries of nadir may
well have far to run, something not lost on the Thais or
By contrast, the US has been at
its pinnacle for some time. It sits high on the wheel in
the circular view of life and power permeating Southeast
Asia, suggesting it is closer to decline. Some
economists, those masters of numerical sleight of hand,
would argue that so high are US private and public debts
that its power will be crimped sooner rather than later
by economic reality.
Countering these forces,
especially with the game already well under way, is
perhaps the greatest challenge facing the new US
president and his administration. It requires foresight
and a long-term policy view spanning decades, something
that is difficult in any democracy, but especially so in
the US, where the Democrats tend to be more
internationalist, the Republicans more isolationist.
Ultimately fate may be the determinant. China's
boom is probably the world's greatest, ever. As night
follows day, bust follows boom. A bust to match China's,
or even India's, boom will shatter the evolving
geopolitical reality, bringing much instability for
Southeast Asia, while creating an opportunity for a
weaker, but stable, United States of America.
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