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Story December 11, 2020

Interview with Malaysia’s former Deputy Defense Minister Liew Chin Tong

The Silent War

The rivalry between 'Democratic Taiwan' and the 'China Model' has lasted for seven decades. Has it...

Flags of ASEAN countries. Image by Tawin Mukdharakosa / Shutterstock. Undated.
Flags of ASEAN countries. Image by Tawin Mukdharakosa/Shutterstock.

(This series was supported by the Pulitzer Center)

The recent crisis in Hong Kong has exacerbated the confrontation between the U.S. and China, and relations between the two countries are increasingly in "free fall." On July 24, 2020, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's "New Iron Curtain" speech upgraded U.S.-China competition to the level of a new Cold War. In addition to their activities in the Taiwan Strait, both countries' heightened presence in the South China Sea is causing the geopolitical temperature to rise. The South China Sea is clearly a possible flashpoint for a military face-off.

The U.S. had maintained its neutrality since the International Court of Justice ruled on the South China Sea dispute in the case brought against China by the Philippines in 2016. But Pompeo's statement on July 13 made clear the U.S.' position for the first time, rejected China's "nine-dash line" claims, and labeled its artificial islands as "illegal." It was seen by many as a turning point representing a further escalation of the U.S.' posturing in the South China Sea.

The Chinese foreign ministry reiterated that China has historic and legal claims over the South China Sea and fully conforms with international norms. However, Southeast Asian states—which share similar interests with the U.S. in the region—have adopted a lukewarm and cautious approach on the issue.

In the past few months of the "new Cold War," Europe has generally been reserved toward the U.S.' "anti-China" policy, partly due to its poor relationship with the Trump administration as well as geopolitical relations and market demand. Eager to find new allies, the U.S. turned its attention to Southeast Asia.

The attitude of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) countries toward the new Cold War is directly related to the ebb and flow of China and the U.S.' strength, and it affects the fate of Taiwan and Hong Kong.

During the Cold War in the 1960s, Mao Zedong launched the Cultural Revolution in China and set off a wave of communist activity in recently decolonized Southeast Asia. Under the banner of "exporting revolution," the Chinese Communist Party fostered local communist organizations such as the Communist Party of Malaya, the Communist Party of Thailand, and the Communist Party of Burma. This pushed right-wing regimes in Southeast Asia to cooperate with the U.S. and become an important counterweight against the Soviet Union and the communists. It also inspired a wave of anti-communist human rights activism.

However, the ASEAN that exists during the new Cold War is no longer what it was then. Many ASEAN nations are undergoing a democratic transition, while economically they are increasingly dependent on China. It remains to be seen whether ASEAN will be pro-U.S. What are the views of key opinion leaders in Southeast Asia?

This reporter interviewed former Malaysian Deputy Defense Minister (July 2018 to February 2020) and Democratic Action Party Senator Liew Chin Tong to get a glimpse of the perspective of Southeast Asian elites.

Liew believes that while isolationism is a term that may apply to the U.S.' relationship with Europe, the U.S. has not withdrawn from Southeast Asia. Since the Second World War, it has maintained a sustained presence in the region—the breadth and depth of this presence over the past 70 years is not easy for China to catch up to within a short period.

Southeast Asia maintains close defense relations with the U.S., and it does not want the superpower to leave Asia. At the same time, Southeast Asia remains on the sidelines of the American Indo-Pacific strategy.

While the general ASEAN consensus is to not give more bargaining chips to the declining U.S., once the Western superpower retreats from Asia, China will become the dominant power in the region—an outcome that seemingly runs counter to the interests of Southeast Asian countries.

Southeast Asia has chosen a non-aligned diplomatic approach in order to maintain its neutrality, shifting from a generally pro-U.S. stance to the middle of the spectrum. The reason is not a change of the U.S.' attitude but rather a pragmatic reorientation by ASEAN countries toward regional affairs.

The following is the full interview:

The probability of a mini conflict between China and the U.S. in the South China Sea

Q: What is Malaysia's or ASEAN's view on the U.S.' recent positive attitude toward the issue of the South China Sea? Do you think the South China Sea could become a point of conflict in the new Cold War?

A: I have often said that in the next 500 years, China will still be ASEAN's neighbor. Geography doesn't give you a choice. But we are very clear that the U.S. is part of the region. Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said that the U.S. is still a "resident power." I think this accurately explains the Southeast Asian view. I believe he is speaking to both sides. He's telling both the U.S. and China: "You have both gone too far."

Southeast Asia does not want any major global conflict to happen in this region, especially with regard to the South China Sea. On the Taiwan Strait [and East China Sea], you have countries such as Taiwan, Japan or South Korea which—despite being close U.S. allies—have high local stakes and elected governments as "buffer zones." In other words, if China and the U.S. enter into a conflict, the stance of these democratic governments will be influenced by public opinion, which will become a natural buffer from the war. The South China Sea is a zone shared by Southeast Asian nations with no single country dominating. No country can match the U.S.' or China's military strength.

To me, the Taiwan Strait is more likely to be a zero-sum game. Once a situation breaks out there, it would not be a small conflict but a war. In contrast, the issue of the South China Sea is like dry wood that can catch fire with a single spark. The danger is that if a mini conflict is ignited, it can escalate if not handled well.

Southeast Asia: from pro-U.S. to non-aligned

Q: Your article in the South China Morning Post advocates Malaysia maintaining an equidistant diplomatic stance between China and the U.S. It is similar to Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's position of "not choosing between the U.S and China." In the past, Southeast Asian countries had different views of these two countries. How do you view the current changes?

A: There is a book called The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914, which describes the events that led to Europe "sleepwalking" into World War I due to many factors that were beyond its control.

As far as ASEAN is concerned, it has nothing to gain from a war between China and the U.S. In the past, each nation came from a different point on the spectrum when it came to China-U.S. relations. In recent years, the positions of Southeast Asia's leaders have become more similar. I believe that Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, Thailand, Myanmar, and other ASEAN countries will not want to choose sides in this matter.

China and the U.S. have different approaches in terms of defense. U.S. warships replenish supplies in Singapore, and both nations cooperate closely on defense, whereas Thailand and Cambodia have arrangements with China. Malaysia and the U.S. have limited military cooperation; their ties are mainly based on economy and trade.

Malaysia is relatively balanced because in the 1970s we adopted the "non-aligned" approach toward foreign affairs. Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman (who served as prime minister from 1957 to 1970) was pro-British and pro-American.

In the 1960s, the (mainly Chinese) Communist Party of Malaya was deeply affected by the Cultural Revolution, which led to tensions between Malaysia and China. However, in the 1970s, the Communist Party of Malaya split, and relations between Malaysia and China eased.

While Tun Razak was in power, from 1970 to 1976, Malaysia established diplomatic relations with China in 1974 and adopted the official diplomatic strategy of "non-alignment" (hedging).

The Philippines and Cambodia are two typical ASEAN countries on different ends of the spectrum. It is interesting to observe the change in their stances.

For example, recently many Cambodians are dissatisfied with Chinese businessmen, and the Cambodian government feels that China has grown too assertive in some areas.

Meanwhile the Philippines, a former colony of the U.S., has cooperated closely with it on military affairs as mandated by American legislation. However, in February this year, the Philippines' president, (Rodrigo) Duterte, threatened to end the U.S.-Philippine military cooperation.

In fact, Duterte's pro-China tendencies make him unusual in the Philippines, where society and the military establishment are still relatively pro-American. Nevertheless, China has not taken into account the pressure from and feelings of the Philippine government in handling the South China Sea issue.

Chinese policymakers do not understand that democratically elected governments need to be accountable to their voters. They have always believed that government policies can lead public opinion. Failing to understand the logic of democratic policy-making has caused China to miss the golden age of operating in Southeast Asia. In recent years, there have been some inconsistencies between China's military and diplomatic approaches in Southeast Asia. Regardless of China's active diplomatic efforts, it is difficult to repair the trust that was damaged by the expansion of its military (in the South China Sea).

The Belt and Road Initiative and the 'Marshall Plan'

Q: During the Cold War, Southeast Asia was an important ally of the U.S. in Asia, but now its attitude is different. Do you think it has something to do with the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)? The U.S. does not have a corresponding "Marshall Plan" in the region. What is your view?

A: In terms of business, U.S. businesses have strong roots in Southeast Asia. Half of Penang's FDI (foreign direct investment) comes from the U.S. In the past few years, Malaysia may have profited from the Sino-U.S. trade war to some extent—as a third option for Chinese investment capital.

Many people give credit to the Belt and Road Initiative in Southeast Asia. Actually, China's investment in Southeast Asia did not increase when Xi Jinping came to power. In fact, there are not many infrastructure projects in the Belt and Road Initiative, but the BRI has driven Chinese capital abroad into sectors such as manufacturing, real estate, and tourism. Palm oil makes up a bigger part of Malaysia-China trade.

Although the U.S. does not have a "Marshall Plan," Japan is also deeply engaged in Southeast Asia. Japan and China are actively bidding for almost all public tenders for infrastructure projects in the region. Even if the U.S. is not focusing especially on Southeast Asia, China is not without competitors in this region. Japan is also a counterweight for China's influence.

There is another battlefield between China and the U.S.: the 5G race is on across Europe, and Southeast Asia may also want to express its stance in the future. There are many submarine cables in Malaysia that have been using Huawei and ZTE technology for over two decades. More than half of Singapore's 5G infrastructure is from China. As I understand it, Singapore has a case-by-case policy and does not subscribe to blanket adoptions or bans of a particular nation.

The Bandung Conference's spirit of non-alignment

Q: Southeast Asia's posture at the moment is reminiscent of the spirit of non-alignment at the Bandung Conference in 1955. What do you think?

A: Interesting comparison. At that time, China participated in the Bandung Conference, as it was gradually antagonistic toward the Soviet big brother.

In search of diplomatic space, the idea was to integrate India and Southeast Asia to establish a "third world (Asia, Africa, and Latin America) ​​discourse, refusing to take a stand in the U.S.-Soviet confrontation. At the time, Malaysia was still a colony. 

Indo-Pacific strategy

The spirit of the Bandung Conference is very similar to that of today. That is, when small states come together as an autonomous grouping, they have more negotiating power vis-à-vis the big powers.

When the Cold War took place, many Southeast Asian countries had just been decolonized. Now they are all sovereign nations that have developed different political systems across the democratic spectrum. Each has its own considerations regarding politics, elections, and public opinion. Without the authoritarianism of the past, national actors are free to make up their own minds. There is diversity of opinion, with no nation being completely pro-U.S. or pro-China.

The U.S. still maintains a deep relationship with Malaysia, especially in terms of security. It is still a "resident power," but if Malaysia chose to side with the American position in the new Cold War, it would not be logical in the regional context. However, we would also not want to lose our agency by relying entirely on China.

Q: ASEAN generally does not favor the U.S. leaving Asia, which would result in China being the sole major power in the region. At the same time, it has reservations about forming an alliance with the U.S. Have you ever considered that if the U.S. is forced to withdraw from Asia, ASEAN will have to face China alone?

A: This is a good question, and I am still thinking about it. However, although it is a fact that the U.S. is declining in global power, China cannot surpass it so quickly. It may be a problem in the next two or three decades, not something we need to face immediately. Our view is that ASEAN should eventually converge and aim to become an autonomous bloc. Our diplomatic purpose is to negotiate with both sides and not be treated as colonies. Small nations have limited (diplomatic) room in which to maneuver, so we have to expand this space to make sure that we have enough of a buffer zone from either side.

President Trump engages in isolationism? The U.S. has not changed, but China and Southeast Asian countries have changed

Q: Some people think that the U.S. is engaged in isolationism in Southeast Asia. What are some examples? Which promises has the U.S. made that are unreliable? What is your view on the "Indo-Pacific strategy?"

A: The U.S. is not engaging in isolationism in Southeast Asia. It has not withdrawn from the region. On the contrary, more American military power has been redeployed to Asia from the Middle East. The Seventh Fleet has been enlarged recently, for example. The U.S. grand strategy during the Obama era was to pivot to Asia. In the past 20 years, the U.S. has spent too many resources in the Middle East. It is the right decision to make the shift in the direction of Asia.

"Isolationism" in the Trump era is pertinent to the U.S.' attitude toward Europe. In fact, the U.S. has maintained a stable presence in Southeast Asia since the end of the war, and there are many levels of collaboration. For example, the U.S. and Malaysia started their low-key military cooperation in the late 1980s, and there is collaboration on many other areas, such as education and culture.

However, ASEAN is not without concerns with regard to the U.S. The Trump-Xi era is a transition.

The main reason is that during the Obama era, U.S. policy was perceived as stable and predictable. Singapore and Malaysia were members of the TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership) negotiations and military partners. Because the general course of the White House was predictable, each nation could adjust according to our own needs.

At the moment, the problem is the unpredictability; nobody knows what the U.S or China will do. Basic cooperation has not changed, but the situation has changed and everyone has shifted.

Southeast Asian countries' current policy of "not choosing" is mainly based on their own geopolitical considerations. When the U.S. proposed the "Indo-Pacific strategy," it hoped to actively win over Southeast Asia. It also had a lot of discussions with domestic governments, hoping to include us. However, when ASEAN released the "ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific" document in 2019, it took the clear stance that while ASEAN understands the Indo-Pacific strategy, it will not become part of the strategy. We are not parties to the issue. We should not be forced to pick a side in the Sino-U.S. competition.

Europe, U.S., and Japan have deep regional roots, while China and Taiwan only have influence among Chinese

Q: In your diplomatic interactions with foreign officials, what differences in operating style have you observed in Southeast Asia, especially between China and the U.S.?

A: American diplomatic and military operations in Southeast Asia have a long-standing and institutional history, regardless of who held political office. This has been a tradition since the Cold War and for the past 70 years. For example, the Malaysian Embassy has U.S. counsellors from every military branch.

The U.S. does not have an initiative similar to China's BRI, and its diplomatic efforts are not on such a large scale. Over a 60-year period, the U.S. State Department has run a program that brings 5,000 leaders from all over the world to visit the U.S. for a month. Each cohort has about 30 or 40 people. Former Prime Minister Tun Razak participated in the program in 1953. The current secretary-general of the Democratic Action Party, Lim Guan Eng, is also an alumnus of this program. Participants are not only from the political circle but also athletes, youth, innovators, academics, and businessmen.

We have visited the U.S. to meet with governing and opposition parties, civil society, NGOs, academia, and business circles. Listening to them criticize the U.S. government helped us understand the country better. In contrast, visits to China are more of a public relations exercise, which tends to be superficial.

Officials that we meet from the British, American, and Japanese embassies have deep local knowledge and connections; they can master the social and political context well. This is due to the accumulation of decades of institutional knowledge since the Cold War.

China and Taiwan can only operate within the (local) Chinese community. In fact, the American model of operations is worth emulating. Whether it be military cooperation, commercial investment, or social networks, there are true connections to the local counterparts. The long-term institutional culture is the same regardless of who is in power. This depth and breadth is something that China cannot surpass in the short term.






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