9 Questions with Senator Jim Webb

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6. Southeast Asia

RCP: Southeast Asia. You're the newly appointed chairman of the Foreign Relations Subcommittee on East Asian and Pacific Affairs. You recently returned from a trip to the region. You've also fought in the region, written books set there, and you speak fluent Vietnamese. What are the biggest challenges facing the U.S. in that region and how do we deal with them?

Webb: I've spent a lot of time in the region, as you know, and the biggest challenge we have as a nation right now is to make sure we pay attention to that part of the world. We tend to focus mostly on what's going on with the Chinese. Sometimes we talk about Japan, North Korea. But we rarely focus on the region in a way that gives it its full measure of attention given its importance to our country. First of all, there is an evolution in Southeast Asia toward foliating through ASEAN and addressing problems in the region or through the community nations that are there. We need to be more actively involved in encouraging and working with the ASEAN environment.

The most immediate, specific threat that we have right now is sorting out the impact of this world economic crisis. Each one of the countries that I was in has already been impacted by the downturn in world economy. Singapore really exists economically by its relationship to world trade -- import and export. They have the largest container shipping port in the world. They're right on the Strait of Malaka. When exports or imports decline, Singapore starts having problems. One thing I heard in Vietnam over and over again -- Vietnam is sort of at the tail end of the world economy -- and when retail businesses start drying up the employment situation in South Vietnam shrinks. A little bit of the same with Thailand. Thailand has political difficulties right now, but I have a real trust in the Thai people. They've been around, been doing this for a long time.

We just saw today some numbers from China. They had a traumatic downturn in imports and exports from a year ago -- comparing January to January. There's some question about how that data will continue because Chinese New Year -- or Tet in Vietnam -- the week that it occurs you have a dramatic slowdown in the country. And it occurred early this year, and some of the Chinese are saying, well this is a reflection of the lunar new year, etc.

All the countries in that region are all vulnerable to the world economy here, and it affects -- this is important to point out -- it affects each of them differently in terms of their political situation and their relationship with the United States. So that's the number one thing that we have to look at, and they are all looking at us to resolve the stimulus package to see where they are going to go.


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