When the US Secretary of State flies into Southeast Asia this week with a new investment pitch for the region, the response could be: thanks a million, but please stop threatening a trade war with China that will make us lose billions of dollars.
Analysts say the $113 million of technology, energy and infrastructure initiatives trumpeted by Mike Pompeo earlier this week - the first concrete details of US President Donald Trump's vague 'Indo-Pacific' policy - may be hard to sell to countries that form an integral part of Chinese exporters' supply chains.
It may even further inflame tensions with Beijing, which has been spreading money and influence across the region via its Belt and Road Initiative development scheme.
“The Southeast Asian capitals are more worried about any blowback effects for them of US-China trade tension than they are about how much they can benefit from this $113 million initiative,” said Malcolm Cook, senior fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.
“Pompeo has a hard selling job. There is still no real positive trade story for Asia coming out of the United States.”
Hot on the heels of Washington's new economic plan for emerging Asia came reports the United States could more than double planned tariffs on $200 billion of imported Chinese goods from dog food to building materials. China called it “blackmail” and vowed retaliation.
After a brief meeting with new Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad in Kuala Lumpur, Pompeo will fly to Singapore - a global trading hub that could be one of the hardest-hit in the region by a trade war - for a sit-down with the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) on Friday.
Singapore's biggest bank, DBS, estimates that a full-scale trade war - defined as 15-25 percent tariffs on all products traded between the US and China - could more than halve Singapore's growth rate next year from a forecast 2.7 percent to 1.2 percent. Malaysia's growth rate in 2019 could fall from an estimated 5 percent to 3.7 percent.
“We are all acutely aware of the storm clouds of trade war,” Singapore's Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan said at the opening of an Asean foreign ministers meeting on Thursday that precedes meetings with the United States and other nations.
Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said earlier this year that a trade war would have a “big, negative impact” on the country.
Ratings agency Moody's said this week that an escalation of trade tensions in 2018 had become its “baseline expectation”, and that Asia was “especially vulnerable” given the integration of regional supply chains.