The Perception Game: How Are China and the US Viewed in Southeast Asia?

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The Perception Game: How Are China and the US Viewed in Southeast Asia?

The State of Southeast Asia Survey 2024 reveals ASEAN’s growing polarization amid China-U.S. competition.

The Perception Game: How Are China and the US Viewed in Southeast Asia?
Credit: Photo 263976989 | Asean Flags © Butenkow |

The recently released “The State of Southeast Asia 2024 Survey Report,” published by the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, has garnered significant attention due to its noteworthy findings. One of the key highlights of the survey is China’s ascendancy over the United States as Southeast Asia’s preferred alignment choice amid the ongoing China-U.S. rivalry. However, a closer examination of various indicators reveals several nuances.

Unsurprisingly, China remains perceived as the most influential economic and politico-strategic force in the region, chosen as such by 59.5 percent and 43.9 percent of respondents, respectively. However, a thorough examination reveals that there have also been gains made by the United States – which was picked as the most influential economic power in Southeast Asia by 14.3 percent of respondents, a noticeable increase from last year’s rate of 10.5 percent – and ASEAN, which has surpassed the U.S. in terms of both political and strategic influence.

It is in terms of perceived political and strategic influence that the U.S. has fallen vis-à-vis China. This year, 25.8 percent of respondents selected the U.S. as the most influential political and strategic power in Southeast Asia, down from 31.9 percent in 2023. China’s score increased, from 41.5 percent to 43.9 percent. This is not surprising, since China is viewed as strategically more relevant than all the other ASEAN Dialogue Partners scoring 8.98 out of 11, followed closely by the U.S. (8.79), and Japan (7.48).

Notably, ASEAN has experienced a significant rise in being viewed as a political and strategic influencer, growing from 13.1 percent to 20.0 percent – outpacing even China.

However, legitimacy is not just dependent on power and influence. Major powers get their legitimacy and authority from power backed by trust, particularly when it comes to their real and perceived role in stabilizing the regional and international order, and securing peace, security, and prosperity for countries concerned.

With that in mind, it’s notable that 58.9 percent of survey participants still view Japan as the most trustworthy major power, followed by the U.S. (42.4 percent) and the EU (41.5 percent).

China, on the other hand, has a lower degree of confidence, with only 24.8 percent expressing trust in its government. This is partially because of worries that China’s strength in the military and economy could endanger regional interests and sovereignty.

According to the survey, some of the same factors that gave respondents confidence in China’s political and economic influence were also the ones that gave them cause for concern – such as its military might and economic might. For example, 45.5 percent of respondents expressed fear that China would use its strengths to threaten their national interests and sovereignty.

Japan turned out to be the most trustworthy country because it was seen as a responsible stakeholder that upholds and defends international law. The EU in the survey is viewed likewise. However, only 37 percent of respondents said they would choose the EU as a third partner to hedge against China and the United States, down from 43 percent last year.

Although the U.S. continues to be trusted because of its ability to shape the world order, doubts persist about its dependability as a responsible power, maybe fueled by domestic issues and policy flip-flops on Southeast Asia by successive American presidents. The results suggest that any improvements in opinions of China in comparison to the United States are more likely to be the result of growing dissatisfaction with U.S. policies over the previous year, rather than born of the conviction that China provides a superior alternative.

In that regard, Washington’s latest acts concerning the ongoing Israel-Hamas war are the most noteworthy. Remarkably, 46.5 percent of respondents considered the Israel-Hamas conflict to be one of the top geopolitical issues facing Southeast Asia, with aggressive actions in the South China Sea coming in second with 39.9 percent.

It is noticeable that the largest contributions to the decrease in confidence in the United States (which dropped from 61.1 percent in 2023 to 49.5 percent) as a strategic partner (other than Laos) emanated from the Islamic countries of the ASEAN group – Brunei (29.9 percent), Indonesia (26.8 percent), and Malaysia (24.9 percent). According to the survey, “a large proportion of Southeast Asia respondents are concerned that Israel’s attack on Gaza has gone too far,” and the U.S. may be seen as complicit.

The study has also demonstrated how polarizing the China-U.S. competition is in ASEAN. Members of ASEAN are conflicted about what side they should choose. While Indonesia, Brunei, and Malaysia appear to be tilted, at least economically, toward China, the Philippines, Vietnam, and Singapore appear to firmly think that affiliation with the United States serves their strategic interests better. Undoubtedly, an ASEAN lacking unity in thought, emotion, and strategy could become ineffective.

About 77.0 percent of respondents view ASEAN as becoming increasingly ineffective, raising questions about its ability to navigate intra-regional and external pressures. 46.8 percent of respondents also believe that ASEAN should enhance its resilience and unity to fend off pressures from the two major powers.

However, as they say, there is a silver lining to every cloud. One positive for the grouping is the growing number of favorable opinions that ASEAN has drawn in this year’s survey. Compared to the previous year, the number of respondents who viewed ASEAN as having economic, political, and strategic influence has increased.

The responses do not tell us anything that we do not already know. Southeast Asia is at the epicenter, making the ongoing contest between the United States and China an immediate concern. ASEAN’s inclination to hedge in a swiftly polarizing region is understandable, and the findings of this survey offer us an explanation for this. The United States and China divide this region and the only way to ensure that their competition does not fragment ASEAN further is by consolidating the institutions that bind these countries together.

Does the survey reflect a real shift toward China? We do not agree it does, but we will only know after the next survey comes around. Ultimately, while the survey indicates evolving perceptions, particularly toward China and the U..S, the dynamic nature of global events suggests that these perceptions may continue to shift in subsequent surveys, influenced by changing geopolitical conditions.