At a recent session of the Shangri-La Dialogue Asia security conference in Singapore, U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis paraphrased Winston Churchill’s famous quote, telling the audience: “Bear with us. Once we’ve exhausted all possible alternatives, the Americans will do the right thing.”

However, Mattis received a rather cool reception from the Southeast Asians in attendance. In a speech made after the conference, Singapore’s defense minister criticized U.S. President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and praised China, saying, “In contrast, China has stepped on the pedal to push ahead with its plans to be a leader for trade in the Asia-Pacific region.” He made absolutely no mention of China’s militarization in the South China Sea.

The Trump administration unilaterally pulled the United States from the TPP, and in trade negotiations demonstrates a strong inclination toward bilateral agreements. This is of growing concern to members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which hold dear the principle of multilateralism. Even more worrisome, however, is the fact that the American commitment to security matters in the Asia-Pacific region has become increasingly dubious.

End of ASEAN’s dual focus?

Until now, most ASEAN countries have relied on China for economic growth and cooperation, and depended on the U.S. for matters of security. Some researchers have even referred to this structure as a “two-layered hierarchical framework.” As the U.S.-Chinese relationship becomes increasingly zero-sum in nature, however, both countries have come to view the dual focus of ASEAN states with growing suspicion.

China in particular is beginning to assume an increasingly tough stance, indicating it will no longer tolerate this type of “two-timing” diplomacy. China did not invite Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong to a recent “One Belt, One Road” summit in Beijing. And in what can only be interpreted as a further snub to Singapore, Chinese President Xi Jinping seated Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak next to him at the summit banquet.

Singapore is also nervous about a memorandum exchanged between China and Malaysia last fall for their joint investment in the Melaka Gateway port construction. Malaysia is intent upon making the Melaka Gateway the biggest trading port on the Malacca Strait. The Melaka Gateway port is located 200 km north of Singapore, and has a water depth of 25 meters. During the Ming Dynasty, the mariner/fleet admiral Zheng He stopped there with his fleet during his expeditionary voyages. Since then, it has prospered as a hub for the black pepper trade. China has set out to incorporate the port into its One Belt, One Road initiative. It represents an ideal stage on which to perform the “China Dream.”

These developments pose a threat to Singapore. The Straits Times has suggested that China is already well aware of the potential of the port with such a depth for military application and may convert the port into a naval base in the future, given its strategic location on the Malacca Strait, through which a full 80 percent of China’s oil imports pass. China is thus tightening the screws on Singapore, which is also the U.S. access point to the region.

China-Malaysia ties grow

Under the Najib government, Malaysia is rapidly becoming closer to China. A Singaporean diplomat who is an old friend of mine explained the various factors behind the Malaysia-China relationship.

First, there is the Najib family factor. Prime Minister Najib’s father, former Prime Minister Abdul Razak Hussein, visited China in 1974 and met with Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong. At the time, Malaysia was grappling with a communist guerilla movement, and Razak appealed directly to Mao for assistance. The guerilla attacks subsided, and his family has enjoyed a “special relationship” with China ever since. It has become customary for China’s newly appointed ambassadors to Malaysia to make their first order of business a courtesy call to Prime Minister Najib’s mother.

Second, China is Malaysia’s biggest trading partner, followed by Singapore, Japan and the U.S., in that order. China thus far outstrips the U.S. as a trading partner, and this gap grows larger every year. Finally, ethnic Chinese make up 22 percent of Malaysia’s population, and demonstrate a growing consciousness of their Chinese identity. China is playing “the Malaysia card” in order to put pressure on Singapore. And Malaysia is allowing China to do so.

Tilting toward China

If China comes to control the South China Sea, it will most likely seek to strengthen its security cooperation with the countries of Southeast Asia. This would come at the expense of these countries’ security ties to the U.S., and make it difficult for ASEAN members to adhere to their principle of “taking no side” in a potential conflict between the external great powers — between the U.S. and China, Japan and China, or China and India.

Indeed, the “ASEAN Way” was defined precisely by the member states’ maintenance of a delicately calibrated neutrality. The characteristic ambiguity, looseness and permissiveness of the ASEAN arrangement was also a shrewd survival strategy. However, the scope for such an approach is narrowing rapidly. At the root of the development is the fear of a U.S. retreat from the region. This explains why the Philippines, Thailand and Malaysia have all tilted toward China in a domino effect.

ASEAN may now be “lost,” just as China was “lost” when a civil war toppled the Kuomintang government of Chiang Kai-shek roughly 70 years ago. The difference, however, is that this time the U.S. appears almost completely unaware of the significance of this development.

Yoichi Funabashi is chairman of the Asia Pacific Initiative and former editor-in-chief of the Asahi Shimbun. This is a translation of his column in the monthly Bungei Shunju.

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