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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.

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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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.

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.


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