Here in the depths of the Cardamom Mountains, where the Chinese-backed Khmer Rouge communists made their last stand in the late 1970s, China is asserting its rights as a resurgent imperial power in Asia. Instead of exporting revolution and bloodshed to its neighbors, China is now sending its cash and its people.
At this clangorous hydropower dam site hard along Cambodia’s border with Thailand, and in Burma, Laos and even Vietnam, China is engaged in a massive push to extend its economic and political influence into Southeast Asia. Spreading investment and aid along with political pressure, China is transforming a huge swath of territory along its southern border. Call it the Monroe Doctrine, Chinese style.
Ignored by successive U.S. administrations, China’s rise in this region is now causing alarm in Washington, which is aggressively courting the countries of Southeast Asia. The Obama administration has cultivated closer ties with its old foe Vietnam. It has tried to open doors to Burma, also known as Myanmar, which U.S. officials believe is in danger of becoming a Chinese vassal state. Relations have been renewed with Laos, whose northern half is dominated by Chinese businesses. In a speech about U.S. policy in Asia on Oct. 28, before she embarked on her sixth trip to Asia in two years, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton used military terminology to refer to U.S. efforts: “forward-deployed diplomacy.”