Yesterday, Singapore’s ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute published its annual State of Southeast Asia survey report, which offers a regular and much-anticipated gauge of elite opinion on key issues of regional and global import. This year’s survey, based on interviews with 1,677 policymakers, journalists, businesspeople, and pundits from the 10 countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), was no exception.
There is a lot to dig into in this year’s survey, from regional views of the Mekong River to perceptions about the efficacy of ASEAN, but among the most striking is the insights it offers into how Southeast Asian elites view the growing power of China, and its unfolding strategic competition with the United States.
In broad terms, the 2022 survey report replicates the broad findings of the past several years, which have highlighted the region’s acknowledgement of, and growing disquiet about, China’s waxing economic, political, and strategic power. In this year’s survey, 76.7 percent of respondents agreed that China was the most influential economic power in Southeast Asia, up from 75.9 percent last year. Meanwhile, 54.4 percent rated it the most influential political and strategic power, up from 49.8 percent in 2021. On both these counts, China led the U.S., Japan, and other nations by a considerable margin.
But while China’s growth has left an impression on Southeast Asian elites, it hasn’t elicited much trust. The survey report found that the most trusted major power in Southeast Asia was Japan, which commanded an overall confidence level of 54.2 percent, even though this number declined significantly from 68.2 percent in 2021, followed closely by the U.S., in which 52.8 percent of respondents expressed confidence.
The figures for China were nearly the opposite. A majority of respondents (58.1 percent) expressed either “little confidence” (33.3 percent) or “no confidence” (24.8 percent) in China to “do the right thing” to contribute to global peace, security, prosperity and governance. Of those who expressed distrust towards China, 49.6 percent expressed fear that China could use economic and military power to threaten their country’s interests and sovereignty. Nearly a quarter said that they did not consider China “a responsible or reliable power.”
Obviously, the exact degrees of distrust differed between nations. They were the highest in Myanmar (88.8 percent, most likely because of China’s perceived support for last February’s military coup), the Philippines (82 percent), Singapore (69.8 percent), Brunei (67.9 percent), and Vietnam (64.6 percent). In Cambodia, on the other hand, opinion was much more positive toward China, with 44.4 percent saying they were “confident” and 29.6 percent “very confident” that China would “do the right thing” in its international dealings. Indeed, Cambodia was the only nation in which levels of trust outweighed levels of distrust.
In last year’s report, the most headline grabbing finding was the broad preference that the region’s elites expressed for the U.S. over China. When asked which power they would align with hypothetically, 61.5 percent of respondents in 2021 said they would rather align with the U.S., compared to 38.5 percent with China. This year’s findings were broadly similar, with 57 percent expressing a preference for alignment with the U.S. over 43 percent for China.
As some observers noted least year, however, this finding was – and is – slightly misleading, given that the preferred option of ASEAN countries was to avoid making such a choice in the first place. Elsewhere, when asked how ASEAN should best manage Sino-American competition, just 11.1 percent of respondents recommended that Southeast Asian nations should choose sides between one of the two major powers. Some 26.6 percent said that the bloc should avoid making such a choice, while 46.1 percent preferred the more active approach of “enhancing ASEAN’s resilience and unity to fend off pressure from the two major powers.” (Whether that would be possible remains in some doubt; over 70 percent of respondents said that the Southeast Asian bloc was “slow and ineffective, and thus cannot cope with fluid political and economic developments.”)
Moreover, while Southeast Asian governments are concerned about China’s rising power, geopolitical tensions did not figure among their most pressing concerns in 2022. The three main challenges facing Southeast Asia, as registered by the survey’s respondents, were the health challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic (75.4 percent), followed by unemployment and economic recession (65.5 percent), and climate change (37 percent).
This would suggest that the distrust of China coexists with a recognition that it has a central role to play in helping Southeast Asia overcome these challenges. In addition to China’s economic centrality to the region, reflected in the aforementioned recognition of its economic influence, it is also recognized as having played an important role in the region’s fight against COVID-19.
A majority of respondents (57.8 percent) expressed the view that of the various outside powers, China has given ASEAN the strongest COVID-19 vaccine support, followed at a considerable distance by the U.S. (23.2 percent), and even more distantly by Australia (4.7 percent), Japan (4.1 percent), India (3.6 percent), and the European Union (2.6 percent).
Even then, however, the picture was ambiguous, with respondents expressing mixed feelings about the efficacy of Chinese vaccines: 54.8 percent nominated the U.S.-developed Pfizer and Moderna vaccines as their preferred vaccines, compared to just 18.7 percent for China’s Sinopharm and Sinovac vaccines.
Ultimately, the 2022 State of Southeast Asia survey report articulates with a considerable degree of nuance the region’s fraught and ambivalent views of China, which can perhaps best be summed up as “can’t live with it, can’t live without it.” While Southeast Asians are overwhelmingly fearful of Beijing’s growing power and ambition, they are also aware that it is an important economic interlocutor and an unavoidable partner on many of the region’s most pressing issues. Similarly, while the U.S. and other major powers command higher levels of trust and support among the region’s elites, the latter do not share Washington’s often binary framing of U.S.-China competition, and are unlikely to join any coalition organized solely around the goal of containing Chinese power.