In diplomacy, what goes unsaid is often as important as what is actually said.
That was apparent at this year’s Shangri-La Dialogue, an important annual defence forum for the Asia-Pacific region. In previous years, the US and other nations concerned about Beijing’s assertive maritime policies in the East and South China Seas have engaged in bitter rhetorical clashes with Chinese officials.
This year’s forum, which was held in Singapore at the weekend, was devoid of the usual diplomatic fireworks, for three main reasons.
First, the profound uncertainty over Donald Trump’s policy toward Asia (and just about everything else) meant that few Asian officials put much credence in an attempt at reassurance by James Mattis, US defence secretary, who attended the gathering.
Second, Beijing has successfully changed the status quo in the disputed waters of the South China Sea by building and starting to put armaments on several islands, making the usual calls for China to halt its “militarisation” irrelevant.
Third, Southeast Asian nations have responded to these first two trends by cosying up to Beijing.
Take the example of Singapore, the host of the forum and a small island nation that has long tried to balance its deep defence ties with the US, hosting its warships and spy planes, and its close economic and political ties to China.
A resurgent China, emboldened by a US retreat from the world stage under Mr Trump and Beijing’s victories in the South China Sea, is no longer so willing to accept what it sees as double-dealing by the likes of Singapore.
Chinese officials have displayed their displeasure. First, nine Singaporean army vehicles were impounded when they were in transit through Hong Kong last year. They then delivered a further snub by declining to invite Lee Hsien Loong, Singapore’s prime minister, to President Xi Jinping’s high-profile Belt and Road investment summit last month.
Ng Eng Hen, Singapore’s defence minister, was keen to build bridges with Beijing when he spoke to the assembled generals, diplomats and policy wonks at the Shangri-La hotel at the weekend.
He made no mention of Singapore’s long-running concerns about Chinese behaviour in the South China Sea and fawned over the Belt and Road project, while sniping at Mr Trump for abandoning the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal. Singapore and other Southeast Asian nations, including Malaysia and Vietnam, had been banking on the TPP to ensure the economic rules in the Asia-Pacific region were set by Washington as much as Beijing.
Mr Ng described the TPP as the “heaviest casualty” of Mr Trump’s “re-visiting of rules and practices governing trade for our region”.
“In contrast,” he added, “China has stepped on the pedal to push ahead with its plans to be a leader for trade in the Asia Pacific region, if not the world.”
Mr Mattis, a well-respected former general, tried to reassure Singaporeans and others by nodding to a quote from an unnamed “British observer” that is sometimes attributed to Winston Churchill.
“Bear with us,” he said. “Once we’ve exhausted all possible alternatives, the Americans will do the right thing.”
But the US’s friends were not convinced by these words. Nor were Chinese observers.
After listening to Mr Mattis, one Chinese academic said that US foreign policy under Mr Trump could be described as the “three Nos”: no expertise, no policy framework, no strategic consensus.
From Jakarta to Hanoi and Manila to Kuala Lumpur, Southeast Asian diplomats endlessly repeat dictums about having “a thousand friends and no enemies” and not wanting to choose between the US and China. Unfortunately, they have increasingly little choice.
Rex Tillerson, the US secretary of state, said on a trip to Australia on Monday that “we cannot allow China to use its economic power to buy its way out of other problems, whether it’s militarising islands in the South China Sea or failure to put appropriate pressure on North Korea”.
But Beijing’s offer of tangible economic benefits for co-operation and significant economic punishment for defiance has prompted Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Vietnam to lean back from the US to China.
Faced with a large Chinese stick, and plenty of tasty carrots, an exhortation to “bear with us” is not enough to give Southeast Asian nations much faith in the direction of US foreign policy.
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