No, Southeast Asians do not now prefer China over the US

There is less than meets the eye in headlines showing ASEAN has tilted toward Beijing in its rivalry with Washington.
Commentary by David Hutt
No, Southeast Asians do not now prefer China over the US
[Illustration by Amanda Weisbrod/RFA]

The famed quip “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics” can be updated for the modern era with “confusion, damned confusion, and opinion polls” in the wake of the 2024 State of Southeast Asia survey of the region’s elites published this month by a think tank in Singapore

The annual report by the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute has sparked some alarmist headlines.

“Majority in Southeast Asia would choose China over the U.S., survey suggests,” Al Jazeera went with. Nikkei Asia intoned: “Majority of ASEAN people favor China over U.S., survey finds”. 

Guess what the Chinese media ran with? “Survey shows Southeast Asians favor China over U.S”. 

Was this actually what the survey revealed? Yes, but if one takes only a cursory flick through its pages to copy and paste some regional averages. 

The headlines were mostly generated by replies to question 31, an annual feature of the survey, which asks respondents: “If ASEAN were forced to align itself with one of the strategic rivals, which should it choose?” 

As a regional average, 49.5% of Southeast Asian respondents this year said they would pick the United States over China, compared with 61.1% in the 2023 poll. The 50.5% who said they would pick China over the U.S. represents a 1 percentage point difference, notwithstanding the drop in U.S. favorability.

In a survey in which pollsters interviewed 1,994 people, the difference between choosing China over the U.S. comes down to the opinions of about 20 people – perhaps not a reliable measure of how a region of 660 million regards the most important geopolitical issue of the day. 

Wang Yi (left), then the foreign policy chief of the Chinese Communist Party, shares a light moment with some ASEAN foreign ministers during the ASEAN Foreign Ministers' Meeting in Jakarta, July 13, 2023. [Tatan Syuflana/Pool via AP]

The survey calculates the average figures for ASEAN as a whole by equal proportion per country, so tiny Brunei, which reliably opts for China over the U.S.,  gets the same weighting as the far more populous and geopolitically-important Philippines, which is consistently pro-U.S. 

The question itself asks whether ASEAN, not national governments, should pick between the U.S. and China. 

It is hard to imagine such a weighty geopolitical decision could ever be taken by consensus in a 10-nation bloc whose members cannot agree on how to deal with the civil war in Myanmar. This makes the regional average worthless as a gauge since it presupposes an impossible outcome. 

Support for China?

A closer look at the swing in support for China raises other questions. If China was becoming more popular, as replies to question 31 implied, we might expect to see China’s popularity rise across the survey. But that’s not the case. 

Question 38, which was, “How confident are you that China will ‘do the right thing’ to contribute to global peace, security, prosperity, and governance?” had 29.5% of all respondents saying “confident” or “very confident” in 2023. But, this year, that number declined to 24.8%. 

Question 22 of the survey was, “In your view, which country/regional organization is the most influential economic power in Southeast Asia?”

Some 59.5% this year said China, down again from last year. And of those who said China is the most important economic partner, 67.4% this year said they were worried about China’s growing influence, again a higher percentage than in 2023.

This year, 43.9% answered China, to question 24, which was, “In your view, which country/regional organization has the most political and strategic influence in Southeast Asia?” This was higher than last year. But 73.5% who said so were worried about Beijing’s growing regional political and strategic influence.

Around half of all respondents expressed concern that ASEAN is becoming increasingly disunited, something the survey makes clear. Dig down into the questions, and one finds that sentiments in the region are equally split between the two superpowers. 

U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris watches as leaders of ASEAN prepare to pose for a group photo during the ASEAN-U.S. Summit in Jakarta, Sept. 6, 2023. [Bay Ismoyo/Pool via AP]

The regional average this year tilts in favor of China on the core question, ”If ASEAN were forced to align itself with one of the strategic rivals, which should it choose?” But that number was massively skewed by a few countries. 

In the 2023 survey, some 58.9% of Laotians picked the U.S. over China. This always seemed to be a very odd result, because Vientiane is one of Beijing’s closest allies.

Additionally, because around 80% of Laotian respondents favored China over the U.S. in the 2021 and 2022 surveys, the 2023 results were something of an anomaly. 

The 2024 results were also heavily skewed by Bruneians, who aren’t very influential in regional geopolitics. The number of respondents opting for the U.S. declined to 29.9% in 2024 from 45% in 2023. The percentage of Thais who would pick the U.S. over China fell from to 47.8% from 56.9% in 2023.

In an outcome that likely reflects anger at  Washington’s support for Israel in the Gaza War, the percentage of Malaysians picking Washington over Beijing dropped  to 24.9% from 45.2% over the past year, while in Indonesia it plunged to 26.8% from 46.3%.

Next year, when the 2025 poll is published, the results could easily be different. 

ASEAN’s divide

A majority from Brunei, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia and Thailand said they would pick China over the U.S.. A majority from Cambodia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore and Vietnam chose the U.S. over China. By state, the regional bloc is equally split 5-5. 

U.S. policy makers might take some comfort in the fact that the pro-U.S. stalwarts in ASEAN have been consistent throughout the years.

In this year’s survey, 61.5% of Singaporeans chose the United States over China, compared to 61.1% in last year’s survey. Some 79.0% of Vietnamese picked Washington over China, compared to 77.9% last year. And 83% of Filipinos were pro-U.S., up from 78.8% last year. 

But the pro-Chinese camp fluctuates.

Laos swung out of it in last year’s survey. Indonesia and Malaysia only became China-over-America in the 2022 survey, but they were previously U.S.-over-China. 

Cambodians tend to swing back and forth. Bruneians have been the only group to consistently pick China over the U.S. since these surveys began. 

Three Southeast Asian states – Singapore, the Philippines and Vietnam – are solidly pro-U.S. Only one is consistently pro-China (Brunei), and the others fluctuate each year. 

This actually should give Beijing more cause for concern than Washington. America’s stalwarts aren’t for turning. Beijing’s backers appear fickle and flighty.

David Hutt is a research fellow at the Central European Institute of Asian Studies (CEIAS) and the Southeast Asia Columnist at the Diplomat. He writes the Watching Europe In Southeast Asia newsletter. As a journalist, he has covered Southeast Asian politics since 2014. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of BenarNews.


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