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Witness to a decade that redefined Southeast Asia

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

By Correspondent / September 3, 2011

Senior Chinese official Wu Bangguo (l.) with Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen in Phnom Penh last year. Even as they embrace China, many Southeast Asian nations have questions about how it will project its power long term.

Tang Chhin Sothy/AFP/Newscom

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Bangkok, Thailand

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.

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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.

IN PICTURES: 9/11

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-à-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.

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