Is Southeast Asia Really Turning Toward China?

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Is Southeast Asia Really Turning Toward China?

The ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute’s latest survey of elite opinion showed declining support for the U.S., but the picture is complicated.

Is Southeast Asia Really Turning Toward China?

Southeast Asian leaders attend the ASEAN Leaders’ Interface with representatives of ASEAN Business Advisory Council in Labuan Bajo, Indonesia, May 10, 2023.

Credit: ASEAN Secretariat/Kusuma Pandu Wijaya

Yesterday, Singapore’s ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute published its State of Southeast Asia survey report for 2024, the release of which has become an annual gauge of elite opinion on key issues of regional and global import. This year’s survey, based on interviews with 1,994 policymakers, journalists, businesspeople, and pundits from the 10 countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), provided considerable grist for analysis, from the region’s view of the conflict in Myanmar to its perceptions of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue.

In this article, I plan to focus on the finding that has garnered the most international media attention, both this year and in the past. The question asked respondents, “If ASEAN were forced to align itself with one of the strategic rivals [i.e. the United States or China], which should it choose?” For several years, the balance of regional opinion had been shifting steadily toward Washington, reaching 61.1 percent in last year’s survey.

However, this year’s report saw a sharp reversal of this trend, with Beijing for the first time since 2020 establishing itself as the “preferred” choice of respondents. According to the survey, 50.5 percent of respondents said that ASEAN should align with China instead of the U.S., a steep increase from the 38.9 percent recorded in 2023, while seven of the 10 ASEAN member states, including U.S. treaty ally Thailand, came down in favor of China.

The U.S. also lost out on a number of other metrics. Only 34.9 percent of regional respondents said that the U.S. was a reliable security partner, a sharp drop from 47.2 percent last year. Conversely, those who said that they were “not confident” in the U.S.’s security role increased from 32.0 percent to 40.1 per cent.

How to interpret this sudden reversal of regional opinion?

The first point to make concerns the survey’s methodology. Observers have long noted that the composition of the survey sample shifts considerably from year to year. This muddies comparisons between different years’ reports, and offers a plausible explanation for at least part of these divergences. Another point is in the phrasing of the question, which poses a binary choice between the two superpowers, in which a vote “for” China is a vote “against” the U.S., and vice-versa. This makes it hard to know, for example, whether a spike in “support” for China reflects positive feelings toward Beijing, or negative feelings toward Washington.

These caveats aside, there is one obvious salient factor that explains the magnitude of the apparent turn of elite opinion against the U.S. in this year’s survey: the Israel-Hamas war. The survey report showed that Israel’s war on Gaza has become the top geopolitical concern among Southeast Asian elites, chosen by 46.5 percent of respondents as one of the region’s three most pressing concerns. This placed it ahead of tensions in the South China Sea (39.9 percent), the Russia-Ukraine war (39.4 percent), global criminal scam operations (39.4 percent), illegal drug production (37.2 percent), and the ongoing conflict in Myanmar (26.6 percent).

This is striking, especially given the conflict’s geographic distance from Southeast Asia. But it speaks to the extent that the Israel-Palestine conflict is politically salient in Southeast Asia’s Muslim-majority nations, the depth of the global outrage at Israel’s relentless attack on Gaza’s civilian population, and the way that this has infected perceptions of the U.S. and undermined Washington’s claim that it is defending a free and open “rules-based international order.”

As one would expect, the views of the Gaza war were particularly marked in Southeast Asia’s Muslim-majority nations. A full 83.1 percent of Malaysian respondents said that it was a pressing geopolitical concern, along with 79.2 percent of Bruneians and 74.7 percent of Indonesians. Unsurprisingly, these three nations also accounted for much of the negative perception of the United States. Just 24.9 percent of Malaysians said that ASEAN should align with the U.S. over China, down from 45.2 percent in last year’s survey. Around 26.8 percent of Indonesian respondents favored the U.S., down from 46.3 percent last year, while the proportion of Bruneian respondents expressing pro-U.S. sentiments fell from 45 percent to 29.9 percent.

The results for those nations that have been historically most friendly toward the U.S. showed broadly similar results to last year. The number of Filipino respondents favoring the U.S. actually increased from 78.8 percent to 83.3 percent – unsurprisingly, given Beijing’s aggressive behavior in the South China Sea – as did those from Vietnam (77.9 percent to 79 percent) and Singapore (61.1 percent to 61.5 percent). Thailand’s results show a steady trend away from the U.S., from 57.3 percent in favor of the U.S. in 2022 to 56.9 percent in 2023 and 47.8 percent this year, but this could well be accounted for by the fact that the number of Thai respondents from the private sector, who might be expected to express more positive sentiment toward China, rose considerably from last year’s survey.

For the three remaining nations – Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar – it is hard to get a read on the results to the “U.S. or China” question. Support for the U.S. among Cambodian respondents declined from 73.1 percent in 2023 to 55 percent this year, while Lao respondents registered a similar shift, with pro-U.S. sentiment dropping from 58.9 percent last year to just 29.4 percent in 2024. At first glance, this seems to reflect a straightforward reflection of these nations’ generally pro-Chinese orientation, but the picture becomes a lot muddier when one considers that support for the U.S. was extremely low for both nations in the 2022 survey: 18.1 percent in Cambodia’s case, and 18.2 percent in Laos’. What conclusions can be drawn from such lurching shifts between staunchly pro-China and pro-U.S. positions over the past three years?

Results from Myanmar are also hard to parse. Pro-U.S. sentiment fell from an overwhelming 92 percent in 2022 to 67.8 percent in 2023 and then to 57.7 percent this year. It remains unclear what this steady decline means. The 2022 result was interpreted as a reaction against China’s apparent support for the military coup of 2021, but why would elite Myanmar respondents have registered greater pro-China and/or anti-U.S. sentiment over the past two years? It is hard to avoid the conclusion that this, too, represents changes to the composition of the Myanmar sample, though it would be hard to say for sure without knowing the exact relation of these respondents to the country’s extremely repressive military regime.

Taken as a whole, the pro-China turn that has dominated media coverage of this year’s State of Southeast Asia survey does not necessarily represent a significant shift toward Beijing. To the extent that it says anything about perceptions of the U.S. and China, it probably reflects less growing favor for Beijing than increasing distaste for the policies of the Biden administration, particularly its staunch support for Israel. As Sharon Seah of the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute put it in an article examining the apparent anti-U.S. shift, it is too soon to draw binding conclusions that the region is “tilting” toward China.

“Perhaps the tide of sentiment has shifted toward China as the more consequential relationship for the region,” she wrote, “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.”

Indeed, I would go further and argue that there are limitations to the survey’s headline-grabbing “U.S. or China” question. The question poses a hypothetical binary choice that respondents are forced to consider in abstraction, and responses can therefore offer little more than a “vibes-based” assessment of the two superpowers. This can be useful as a rough gauge of regional perceptions, but the fact that it is impacted by extra-regional issues like the Israel-Hamas conflict suggests that we can draw limited conclusions about how individual leaders and nations would tilt in the event of a U.S.-China conflict.

For now, ASEAN nations, even those that are viewed as most pro-U.S. (the Philippines) or pro-China (Cambodia, Laos), would rather avoid such a binary choice altogether. Although hardly “popular,” China is both geographically proximate and central to the region’s economic future, while most nations recognize the importance of the U.S. military acting as a counterbalancing force in the region. Sure enough, to the separate question of how ASEAN should respond to growing strategic competition between China and the U.S., just 8 percent of respondents said that the region should “choose between one of the two major powers.” Most opted for ASEAN to “enhance its resilience and unity to fend off pressure from the two major powers” (46.8 percent) and “continue its position of not siding with China or the U.S.” (29.1 percent). This is surely a more important finding than the answer to the question about a hypothetical alignment with either Washington or Beijing.

We should conclude with a further caveat: Even if the survey results do not show a region pivoting to China, the U.S. government should not be complacent about its position in the region. One of the most useful things about the State of Southeast Asia survey is the extent to which it highlights areas of divergence between the perceptions that reign in Southeast Asian and Western capitals. If this year’s headline-grabbing result does anything, it will hopefully shock U.S. policymakers into recognizing just how the gap is that separates their own self-conception – as the defenders of a “rules-based order” that is consonant with interest of humanity writ large – from the balance of regional opinion.