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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.

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Yet Radio Cakrawalla is a strictly minority taste. Spin the dial in Jakarta or Kuala Lumpur and you'll hear mostly American music, just as the multiplex is a showcase for Hollywood movies. Chinese films barely get a look-in, apart from martial arts epics. Instead, the competition is from South Korean and Japanese TV shows and boy bands.

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China may be a trading behemoth, but it doesn't set the cultural agenda.

A little Mandarin, a little Ivy League ...

The same applies to education. Thai parents want their children to speak Mandarin. But a degree from an Ivy League school is still prized, says Ross, who graduated from Fordham University in New York. Vietnam ranks in the Top 10 countries of origin for foreign students in the US. Singapore is trying to become an education hub by hosting Western universities, including Yale University. Such is the nature of soft power.

Democracy is another asset for US imagemakers. Southeast Asia isn't a bastion of political liberty, but most countries have some kind of elected government, and young people are demanding far greater freedoms than those of their parents' generation, which focused on economic survival. I rarely meet anyone who views China's political system as a model for their own country.

Even in Muslim-dominated Indonesia, where Bush-era wars were so unpopular, America's image got a boost from the election of President Obama, who spent part of his boyhood there.

The US government has also learned to balance its support for counterterrorism in Indonesia, which has suffered its own Al Qaeda atrocities, with more outreach to ordinary Muslims who are moderate in their faith, yet suspicious of US influence.

The latest effort was a series of concerts this month in Indonesia by Native Deen, an Islamic hip-hop group from Washington. Their four-city tour was billed as a "diplomatic mission" to promote tolerance, all paid for by the US State Department.

China is taking note. It has begun flying Indonesia's Islamic scholars to China on study tours in order to show how Muslim minorities thrive in China, despite its official atheism. It's the kind of public diplomacy that the US has used for decades to burnish its image, so it's hardly surprising that China is doing the same.

It may be in this area, as well as the "hard power" of military might and economic influence, that US-China rivalry plays out in Southeast Asia in the decades ahead.

I won't be around to watch this contest of ideas in Southeast Asia. I'm waiting for my journalist accreditation from Beijing, where I'll be working as a business reporter. I'll miss this region and its beguiling mash-up of people, cultures, and languages.

Now please excuse me while I get back to my Mandarin homework.


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