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Southeast Asia

So long US, hello China, India
By David Fullbrook

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 understand?

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.

Thailand in 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 neighbor.

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.

That accelerated 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 to.

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.

Other Southeast 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.

Choosing 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.

Potentially the 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.

China's and 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.

Thailand's 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 their neighbors.

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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Nov 4, 2004
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