Skip to: Content
Skip to: Site Navigation
Skip to: Search

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.

(Page 2 of 3)

Instead, they talked terrorism, security, and Islam, and were viewed with deep suspicion by Muslims in the region.

Skip to next paragraph

China's 'strong benign partner' approach

China wants to be seen as a "strong benign partner" to the region, a Malaysian defense strategist told me in 2005.

"What's less certain is that once China becomes that strong power and sits, let's say, shoulder to shoulder with the US, how will it behave then?" he asked.

That question still echoes through the corridors of power in Southeast Asia. China has begun testing its first aircraft carrier, while pressing its claims to islands in the South China Sea. The debt-saddled US economy is underwater. The rising-China/declining-US narrative has become a global talking point.

Yet on the streets of Bangkok and Singapore, the mood is more upbeat. Many people have Chinese roots and are proud to see China back on its feet. Others are simply happy to get a piece of the action as China's economy sucks in more goods and services from the region.

On the outskirts of Bangkok, I spent a day with Varnee Ross, the daughter of a Thai-Chinese tycoon. Her private school caters to elite Thais who want to prepare their kids for a more Chinacentric world. In the classroom, I heard young children chant in Mandarin, then switch to English in their next class. During recess, they revert to their native Thai.

English is still the global language. But Mandarin is making rapid inroads, particularly in countries that trade heavily with China.

Last year, China bought around $40 billion in goods from Thailand, more than from Japan, Europe, and the US. Not surprisingly, Thai professionals see learning to speak Mandarin as a way to get ahead.

Ms. Ross told me she had a more romantic vision for her trilingual school.

"I would like my children to appreciate beautiful poems and beautiful Chinese paintings," she said.

Indonesia's relationship

Indonesia has a more fraught history with China, and with its ethnic-Chinese minority. After crushing a Communist movement, Suharto cut ties to Beijing and made it illegal to distribute Chinese-language books. The ban was lifted in 2000, but Chinese-Indonesians, who tend to be richer, still face popular prejudices.

Radio Cakrawalla, an FM station in Jakarta, serves up a diet of Chinese pop music and Mandarin chatter. Its young presenters, like Rudy Xiao Wei, have studied overseas in Chinese-speaking countries and returned to a democratic Indonesia, eager to explore new freedoms.

"When you broadcast in Mandarin, you get a lot of old people, but also teenagers who want to learn," he told me as we sat in the studio, watching call-in messages scroll on a monitor.


Read Comments

View reader comments | Comment on this story