Southeast Asia would choose the U.S. over China if forced to pick sides, survey shows

Signs with the US flag and Chinese flag are seen outside a store selling foreign goods in Qingdao in China’s eastern Shandong province on Sept. 19, 2018.

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SINGAPORE — Southeast Asia’s support for the U.S. appeared to increase after Joe Biden won the presidential election, according to an annual survey by Singaporean think tank ISEAS Yusof-Ishak Institute.

The State of Southeast Asia survey released last week found that 61.5% of respondents favor aligning with the U.S. over China if the region was forced to pick sides. That’s an increase from 53.6% who chose the U.S. over China in the same survey a year ago.

“The region’s support for Washington may have increased as a result of the prospects of the new Biden Administration,” read the report of the survey results.

Responses to the latest survey were gathered from Nov. 18 last year to Jan. 10 this year — after Biden was projected to defeat Donald Trump in the election, but before he was inaugurated as president.

The survey involved more than 1,000 respondents from all 10 member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN. The respondents include government officials, business people, as well as analysts from academia, think tanks and research institutions.

Comparing country-level data, a majority of respondents from seven Southeast Asian nations chose the U.S. over China in the latest survey. That’s an increase from three in the previous edition, with Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand switching sides.

Despite that, the greatest proportion of survey respondents chose China — over the U.S., ASEAN and others — as the most influential power in Southeast Asia.

Around 76.3% of respondents picked China as the most influential economic power, while 49.1% chose China as the most influential political and strategic power.   

Significance of Southeast Asia 

Southeast Asia has been caught in the middle of U.S.-China competition in the last few years.

The region is home to more than 650 million people and some of the world’s fastest-growing economies. Its proximity to the South China Sea — a vital commercial shipping route where trillions of dollars of the world’s trade passes through — adds to its strategic importance.     

The U.S. has for many years been an important presence in the region through both security and economic engagements. But during Trump’s term, the U.S. withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership — a mega trade pact that included several Southeast Asian countries — and top American government officials were notably absent at a few important regional summits.

That seeming lack of interest from the U.S. in the last few years coincided with China’s more aggressive push in the region through programs including infrastructure investments under the Belt and Road Initiative.

But the latest ISEAS survey found that a majority of respondents — around 68.6% — were optimistic that the U.S. under Biden would increase its engagement in Southeast Asia. That compared with a year ago when 77% thought U.S. engagement would decrease, the survey showed.

The region’s trust in the U.S. also jumped from 30.3% a year ago to 48.3% in the latest survey.

“Only time will tell if the region’s renewed trust in the US is misplaced or not,” read the report.

Early signs have shown that the Biden administration would focus more on the region in the coming years.

The president has beefed up his foreign policy team with experts on Asia, while U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken — in a call with his Philippine counterpart — pledged to “stand with” Southeast Asian countries against Chinese pressure in the South China Sea.

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