U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson left Singapore out in his very first Southeast Asia tour, that wrapped up yesterday. The diplomat visited Thailand and the Philippines before wrapping up his tour with a trip to next-door-neighbour Malaysia.
The move comes after U.S. President Donald Trump and Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong re-affirmed the US-Singapore relationship at the G20 Leaders’ Summit at Hamburg, Germany, last month. The two leaders had said then:
PRESIDENT TRUMP: The Prime Minister of Singapore — we’re very close, the relationship is very close, and we expect to do some excellent things together in many ways. And we have a very big relationship now. It will probably get much bigger. And I thank you very much. Thank you.
PRIME MINISTER LEE: Well, thank you, Mr. President. We have many things going on with the U.S. and we hope to do more under your administration.
In spite of this, Secretary Tillerson has skipped Singapore in the tour aimed at symbolising the POTUS’ commitment to Southeast Asia.
Secretary Tillerson’s meetings in the Phillipines were centered around nuclear threats from North Korea. The Secretary urged the Philippines, Thailand and Malaysia to maintain pressure on North Korea to drop its nuclear weapons and missile programs.
The Secretary’s visits to Thailand and Malaysia were particularly notable. Both countries had shown a distinct lean towards developing closer ties with China in recent years.
Relations between the US and Thailand had soured after Thailand’s military seized power from the elected government three years ago. Secretary Tillerson was the first top U.S. official to visit the country since then.
Malaysia, too, has been cultivating deeper bilateral relations with China since U.S. ties became strained after the massive 1MDB corruption scandal – in which billions of dollars are alleged to have been drained from a state investment fund – erupted two years ago.
China has since become Malaysia’s biggest trading partner.
The relations Thailand and Malaysia share with China has been seen as an affront to Washington which seems to be irked by China’s ‘carrot-and-stick’ international relations model and the nation’s aggressive intimidation techniques like its rigid territorial claims in the South China Sea.