Report: Trust in US Soars Among Southeast Asians, Wanes Toward China

Shailaja Neelakantan
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Report: Trust in US Soars Among Southeast Asians, Wanes Toward China A Chinese government staff member adjusts U.S. and Chinese national flags after a strategic meeting between officials of the two countries, Beijing, July 10, 2014.

Southeast Asian professionals are concerned that Beijing could use its financial and military might to threaten their countries’ sovereignty, which is why more of them trust the United States over China to work toward world peace, according to a new report by a Singaporean think-tank.

Confidence that the U.S. would be a leader in fostering global peace soared this year from the previous one, while fewer professionals throughout the region now trust China on the issue, according to findings of surveys done by the ASEAN Studies Center at the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.

“The region’s trust deficit in China is trending upwards. China is the only major power that has increased its negative ratings from 60.4 percent in 2020 to 63 percent in 2021,” according “The State of Southeast Asia 2021” report.

“China’s predominant economic and political influence in the region has created more awe than affection. … the majority worry that such economic heft, combined with China’s military power, could be used to threaten their country’s interest and sovereignty,” said the report.

The think-tank surveyed more than a 1,000 people in the 10 countries that form the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

The United States, by contrast, has “made a surprising turn-around” in positive ratings in 2021 from the year before – 48.3 percent this year compared with 30.3 percent last year.

Those Southeast Asians who trust the U.S. said they believed it had the “political will to provide global leadership” and its military power “is an asset for global peace and security.”

“Have the respondents left behind the past four years of dismal engagement with ASEAN under the Trump presidency and turned more bullish as the Biden administration takes over?” said the report, referring to professionals it surveyed from the across the regional bloc between Nov. 18, 2020 and Jan. 10, 2021.

“Only time will tell if the region’s renewed trust in the U.S. is misplaced or not.”

The report attributes Joe Biden’s ascendancy to the U.S presidency for why more of those surveyed welcomed Washington’s strategic influence in their countries compared with last year.

“This positive view of the U.S. may well be attributed to the anticipation that the Biden administration will elevate American engagement with the region,” the report said.

Concurrently, confidence in America as a provider of regional security also rose because professionals believe the new administration in Washington will turn its focus back to Southeast Asia.

“Despite Washington’s perceived growing absence and decreasing influence in the region, 55.4 of the respondents still express confidence in the U.S. as a strategic partner and provider of regional security,” the report said.

This marked a more than 20-percrntage point increase from last year that “can be attributed to the general optimism that the new Biden administration will pivot back to Southeast Asia.”

Still, more than three-quarters of those surveyed acknowledged that Beijing has by far the most economic impact on Southeast Asia, the report said, noting that most who believe this worry about the superpower’s growing economic influence.

Close to half of those surveyed also see China as the region’s most influential political and strategic power, “which engenders considerable anxiety over Beijing’s strategic clout in the region,” the report said.

But a majority of respondents (61.5 percent) said they would pick the United States, when asked which of the two rival superpowers they would align themselves with if forced to do so. 

“China as a choice dropped from 46.4 percent in 2020 to 38.5 percent in 2021 … despite intensive COVID-19 diplomacy seen in the region,” the report said.

The Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS) was established as an autonomous organization by an act of the Singapore Parliament in 1968. It was renamed ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute in August 2015, after the first president of Singapore, who was elected by parliament.


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