SE Asia Survey Shows Narrow Preference for United States amid US-China Rivalry

BenarNews staff
200116-SEA-asean-620.jpg U.S. National Security Adviser Robert O'Brien (center left) and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (center right) interact at the ASEAN summit in Nonthaburi, Thailand, Nov. 4, 2019.

If ASEAN were forced to choose between China and the United States, a majority of respondents to a survey of residents of the Southeast Asian bloc would choose Uncle Sam, according to a Singaporean think-tank report published Thursday.

But the survey by the ASEAN Studies Center at the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute also found significant support for China and “a trust deficit” toward the United States.

Of the survey’s 1,300 respondents, 53.6 percent said ASEAN should opt to align itself with the United States, were it forced to choose between the strategic rivals. Yet, “support for China cannot be under-estimated,” said the State of Southeast Asia: 2020 Survey Report.

“The majority of respondents from seven ASEAN member states choose to align their country with China: Laos (73.9%), Brunei (69.1%), Myanmar (61.5%), Malaysia (60.7%), Cambodia (57.7%), Thailand (52.1%), and Indonesia (52%),” the survey said.

“In comparison, strong support for alignment with the US is found in Vietnam (85.5%), the Philippines (82.5%) and Singapore (61.3%).”

Nearly half of the survey respondents said ASEAN nations should focus on unity to fend off pressure from Washington and Beijing, as the two superpowers square off in a strategic rivalry.

“ASEAN’s strategic conundrum is best summed up by the African proverb – ‘when elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers,’” the report said.

Most trusted: Japan

Questioned about the U.S.-China trade war, 63.9 percent of respondents said their country had been negatively impacted by it.

China’s economic influence is deeply felt but not well received in the region with 71.9 percent of survey respondents “worried about its growing regional economic influence,” the survey found.

Respondents chose China, 52.2 percent, as the most influential political-strategic player in the region – nearly double the U.S. figure of 26.7 percent. Only respondents in the Philippines picked the U.S. over China.

Moreover, “there is a strong trust deficit toward the U.S. since among the respondents who pick the U.S. as the most influential political and strategic power, only 52.7 percent welcome Washington in the region,” the report found.

As support for the U.S. fell, respondents said they looked to Japan as preferred strategic partner.

“Japan is the most trusted major power among Southeast Asians, with 61.2 percent of the respondents expressing confidence in Japan to ‘do the right thing,’ to provide global public goods,” the report found.

China took its own hit from respondents.

“Among those who view China as having the most political-strategic influence in Southeast Asia, 85.4 percent register their concern over this matter,” the think tank reported.

“Washington’s shrinking diplomatic clout and ambivalent interest in ASEAN and regional affairs are paving the way for China to expand its regional influence and carve out a sphere of influence in Southeast Asia,” the report stated.

Other concerns

Responding to questions on other topics, the respondents rated domestic political instability (70.5 percent) and economic downturn (66.8 percent) as the region’s most pressing security concerns while terrorism (44.6 percent) was last.

Nearly all respondents rated climate change as a concern with 52.7 percent calling it a serious threat and 44.1 percent calling it an important issue that deserves to be addressed. Less than 1 percent of respondents agreed with the assertion that there is no scientific basis for climate change.

The online survey conducted between mid-November and early December 2019, drew on “a specialized pool of respondents from five professional categories: research, business and finance, public sector, civil society, and the media.” A total of 1,308 people participated in the survey.

Singapore’s Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS) is an autonomous research organization established by the parliament of the city-state in 1968. It was renamed the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute in 2015.

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