A new report shows rising trust in the US among Southeast Asia’s upper classes, along with anxiety about China’s dominance and a continued commitment to neutrality.
A survey published February 10 by a Singaporean think tank has found that Southeast Asia’s professional class is increasingly supportive of the US.
The State of Southeast Asia 2021 report by the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute surveyed over 1,000 respondents across ASEAN about their top concerns, geopolitical views and opinions on COVID-19 responses and leadership.
Over 60% of those surveyed would rather see Southeast Asia align with the US than with China, up from 53.6% in 2020. That being said, over 95% still believe ASEAN can avoid siding with either power and over 60% of respondents said they expect US-China trade tensions to ease in the coming years.
For both Laos and Brunei however, a large majority of respondents said they prefer to support China. The strongest support for the US was among Filipinos (86.6%) and Vietnamese (84%).
The survey participants mostly came from academia or think tanks (45.4%) and government (30.7%) followed by small portions from the private sector, civil society, media and international organizations.
While the report doesn’t claim to offer a comprehensive view of Southeast Asia, it shows that the election of US President Joe Biden, the pandemic and China’s responses to it are shifting public opinion in the region.
Along with a preference for the US, the results showed increasing anxiety over China’s dominance in Southeast Asia. This suggests that respondents are most concerned about balancing Beijing’s influence and are not simply embracing Washington’s pivot to Asia.
The survey results may also be influenced by the nationalities of respondents, which skewed primarily towards Vietnam, Singapore and Myanmar. Indonesia was underrepresented, at only 12.5% of respondents despite accounting for over 40% of Southeast Asia’s population.
The top concerns across Southeast Asia were the pandemic, followed by economic recession and income disparity or the widening socio-economic gap. Concern about COVID-19 was highest among respondents in Laos, Myanmar and Indonesia.
Report shows growing trust in US, anxiety over China
The ISEAS survey found that trust in the US as a strategic partner has grown dramatically among respondents, from 34.9% in 2020 to 55.4% in 2021. Japan remains the most trusted major power among survey respondents by far.
The researchers suggested that support for the US has increased in Southeast Asia as President Biden has signaled he will reengage with the region. The survey was conducted between November and January, after the US election, and found that almost 70% of respondents expect Biden to increase engagement in ASEAN.
But the Biden administration views its relations with Southeast Asia primarily through the lens of competition with China. Recently-appointed US Secretary of State Tony Blinken has said China is a “top priority”. Blinken will likely continue to base US relations with Southeast Asia on strategic concerns about China. The new administration has already reached out directly to allies in Thailand and the Philippines, primarily to discuss defense cooperation and “shared values.”
The Biden administration appears to realize that Southeast Asia is most interested in balancing the influence of major powers. Biden has appointed Kurt Campbell as Indo-Pacific coordinator for the National Security Council—a new position that some are calling the “Asia czar”. Campbell has signaled he understands the strategic dilemma facing ASEAN and doesn’t expect wholesale commitment to Washington.
“Most countries desire a balance between China and the United States that preserves their economic opportunity as well as their political autonomy,” Campbell wrote recently. “What is necessary is for the US to be resolute and clear about the challenges posed by China and seek to summon the capacity among states to present China with a unified diplomatic position.”
According to the ISEAS survey, Southeast Asia’s upper classes are realistic about China’s weight. The majority of respondents still consider China to be the most influential economic power in the region by far—76.3% consider Beijing economically dominant, compared to 79.2% in 2020.
Respondents reported increasing anxiety over Beijing’s strategic clout: nearly half said that China is the most influential strategic and political power and, of this subset, 88.6% reported they were worried about its growing influence.
China was the only major power to see an increasing level of distrust among Southeast Asians, with 63% saying they had little or no confidence that Beijing will “contribute to global peace, security, prosperity, and governance”, up from 51.5% in 2019. But most of this distrust of China was due to concerns that it may abuse its economic and military power, rather than doubts about its leadership, capacity or reliability.
The degree of attention given to geopolitics on the whole appears unaffected by the pandemic, whereas the proportion of people concerned about “Domestic political instability (including ethnic and religious tensions)” dropped dramatically from 70.5% in 2020 to 35.1% in 2021.
Notably, the survey of ASEAN respondents found that few people have confidence in ASEAN itself as an institution, with 71.5% saying it is “slow and ineffective, and cannot cope with fluid political and economic developments.”