The answer could well be the ASEAN, or also known as the Association of South East Asia Nations. (In western terms, a miniature of the European Union)
Who are they?
The ASEAN is a group of ten South East Asia Nations that are founded to promote peace, security, development and trade in South East Asia. It is one of the most peaceful, prosperous and U.S. friendly sub-regions in Asia, having a combined GDP of roughly $2.5 trillion in 2015. It is projected to rank as the fourth-largest economy by 2050. It sits on the second busiest waterway in the world — the straits of Malacca.
What is the importance of the Straits of Malacca?
It is the world’s second greatest shipping passage, one-third of all the world’s shipped goods and 15.2 millions gallons of oil pass through the strait daily. Most importantly, it serves as a natural choking point for ships entering the South China Sea and accounts for more than half of the oil supply entering energy-hungry China.
On China’s route map to become a global superpower, it has already set sights on ASEAN and has actively engaged ASEAN leaders. Offering billions of dollars in aid and loans to these ASEAN leaders which include Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razar and Cambodian President Hun Sen. As a challenge to U.S. control of the straits of Malacca, China has built military and commercial ports along this vital waterway. Also, this has challenged U.S. presence and dominance in Singapore, a strong U.S. ally.
President-elect Trump may share a special friendship with the Filipino President Duterte, but he must do more to prevent the Philippines (longstanding US ally) to be leant towards China. Just this week, the Filipino president had suggested shifting US-Filipino naval exercise to face the Pacific ocean instead of facing the South China Sea. These are signs and indications that ASEAN might fall to a strong China and gaining full control of the South China Sea, which can be detrimental to U.S. energy, defense and economic interests.
In upcoming years of Trump’s administration, he is expected to bump into China on various issues. Given the deal-making mindset of President-elect Trump, holding onto one of China’s lifeline will definitely a power bargain tip to leverage for the best deal for American interests.