America Can't Get Complacent in Asia

Thailand and Cambodia are once again disputing 1.8 square miles of land that surround the Preah Vihear temple, a spectacular Hindu shrine that was built in the 11th century. The conflict has been all over the news, and it got so serious at one point that the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) stepped in to try to cool things down.

It's a good thing that Condoleezza Rice was on hand to inject some sense into the discussions. Cambodia wanted to get the U.N. involved, but she insisted that there was no need to bring in a third party. The leaders at the ASEAN summit listened to her. They respect her and trust her judgment. The U.N. issues a lot of nice rhetoric but rarely gets the job done when it comes to defending peace and security. Cambodia's no longer appealing to the U.N., and it looks like the border dispute may begin to cool down a little bit.

When we play a role in Asia, people notice and listen. In such a fast-paced world, however, where opportunities are constantly being created and destroyed, we can't expect people to appreciate us if we're not there. We haven't been to two of the last three ASEAN summits, and we haven't taken much of an interest in the annual East Asia Summit, which brings together the ASEAN countries plus other Eastern powerhouses such as India, China and Japan. Where the heck have we been? Just because we've had a dominant presence in Asia since WWII doesn't mean that it'll always be that way.

China senses an opportunity, and it's going full-throttle in its attempt to win over its neighbors — it's going on a "charm offensive." Whether it's giving them economic incentives through free trade agreements (take the ASEAN-China Free Trade Agreement, for example) or addressing issues such as North Korea's nuclear ambitions, it's aggressively working to get Asia in its back pocket.

And let's not forget India. They may be doing things more quietly than China, but they're also wooing Asia with incredible economic and political opportunities.

We shouldn't try to stop them. They're working hard and deserve the rewards that they're getting. At the same time, we need to get our act together lest we miss out on the golden opportunities that a rising Asia promises to offer.


Kathy Kemper is founder and CEO of the Institute for Education, a nonprofit foundation that recognizes and promotes leadership and civility locally, nationally and in the world community.

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