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ASEAN is now more pro-China than US: survey

Bloc’s leaning shifted to China in just one year but members Vietnam and the Philippines still prefer the U.S.

For the first time in five years, Southeast Asian grouping ASEAN, collectively, is tilting more towards China than the United States, a new survey by a Singapore think tank has found.

The ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute has been compiling the annual survey report ‘State of Southeast Asia’ since 2020 and every year before, the U.S. was the bloc’s preferred world power. 

This year, however, when asked if being forced to align with one of the strategic rivals, which should they choose, 50.5% respondents chose China while 49.5% picked the U.S.

The preferences last year were 38.9% for China and 61.1% for the U.S.

ASEAN consists of ten countries. Seven of them – Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, and Thailand – polled in favor of China with a higher rate than last year. Malaysia and Laos saw the biggest changes – 20.3% and 29.5%, respectively.

The U.S., however, remains the superpower of choice for Singapore (61.5%), Vietnam (79%) and the Philippines (83.3%). 

The latter two, especially Manila, have seen Beijing’s increased aggression in the South China Sea, where there are conflicting claims by different countries but China’s claim is by far the most expansive. 

Hanoi has just upgraded its relationship with Washington to the highest level of comprehensive strategic partnership, reflecting a new mutual trust and cooperation.

Decreased U.S. engagement

The survey said the U.S. maintains its status as the region’s advocate for maintaining a rules-based order and upholding international law.

However, when asked about the U.S.’s policy towards Southeast Asia, 38.2% said that the level of U.S. engagement with Southeast Asia has decreased under the administration of President Joe Biden, with 25.2% saying it has increased.

Only 34.9% of regional respondents say the U.S. is a reliable security partner, a big drop from 47.2% last year.

Meanwhile, the majority of regional respondents “still maintain a sense of unease and worry” about China’s economic and political and strategic influence, according to Sharon Seah, the lead author of the survey.

“Perceptions of China as the most influential economic power in Southeast Asia remain high with 59.5% of regional respondents sharing this view,” the survey found.

China, thanks to its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative, has increased economic and political engagement in Southeast Asian countries.

That led to a majority of respondents worried about China’s growing regional economic influence in the region (67.4%). Only 32.6% said they welcomed China’s strengthened foothold in their economies.

Vietnam China coastguard.JPG
ASEAN leaders hold hands for a family photo before the start of the ASEAN-China Summit in Jakarta, Indonesia, September 6, 2023. (Reuters)

“Perhaps the tide of sentiment has shifted toward China as the more consequential relationship for the region,” Seah wrote in the Yusof Ishak Institute’s site Fulcrum

“But it remains to be seen whether the recent trend of diminishing regard for the U.S.’s strategic partnership will mark a sea change in regional geopolitics.”

The survey was conducted by the institute’s ASEAN Studies Centre between January and February this year, with 1,994 people taking part.

Singapore has the highest number of respondents (273 or 13.7%), followed by Indonesia (265 or 13.3%) and Malaysia (225 or 11.3%).

A 10% weighting average was applied to each country’s responses to calculate the average figures for ASEAN as a whole.

The largest affiliation group of respondents is from the private sector (33.7%), followed by government (24.5%), and academia, think-tanks or research institutions (23.6%).

Edited by Taejun Kang and Mike Firn.:

This content originally appeared on Radio Free Asia and was authored by Radio Free Asia.

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