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Southeast Asian countries trust the U.S. over China, report finds

China's influence in the region has created 'more awe than affection,' the annual report notes.

Updated: February 14, 2021 - 10:21pm

The Facts Inside Our Reporter’s Notebook

Policymakers in Southeast Asia are alarmed by Beijing's growing regional clout, and say that they trust the United States over China, according to a newly released report.

The findings were released as part of an annual survey carried out by a Singapore-based foundation, the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute. Organizers sent the survey late last year to government officials, academics, and other stakeholders from the 10 countries comprising the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). The resulting report, "The State of Southeast Asia: 2021," shows an increasing tilt away from China and toward the United States.

"If forced to align oneself in the on-going US-China rivalry, the majority of respondents choose the US (61.5%)," the report notes. "China as a choice dropped from 46.4% in 2020 to 38.5% in 2021, even despite intensive COVID-19 diplomacy seen in the region."

The countries of ASEAN are Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam. The group focuses on common issues such as economics and security.  

Although chiefly concerned about the COVID-19 pandemic, the stakeholders are deeply concerned about an increasingly powerful China, the report authors note.

"The region's anxiety over Beijing's growing strategic clout has not eased, but increased to 88.6% from 85.4% last year," the authors reported. "China remains the undisputed influential economic power in the region according to 76.3% of respondents." Most of those respondents worry about growing economic influence. But they also fear Chinese military power.

"China's predominant economic and political influence in the region has created more awe than affection," the authors wrote. The ASEAN stakeholders fear "that such economic heft, combined with China's military power, could be used to threaten their country's interest and sovereignty." 

China in the past month has increased its regional military posturing, and has ramped up both action and rhetoric. The moves included launching sorties from military aircraft near Taiwan; exercises involving land-based intermediate-range ballistic missiles; and a new law that allows China's coast guard to strike foreign targets in disputed waters.

China has flexed its muscles regarding Taiwan and the South China Sea in years past, but the recent moves are considered to be more threatening because China has strengthened its military. 

The Pentagon noted in a 2020 report that Chinese military capabilities dwarf those of Taiwan. In every aspect, including the numbers of troops, ships, tanks, artillery and more, China outpaces its offshore neighbor. 

The report on views from ASEAN stakeholders is unweighted by views from Taiwan, which does not belong to the group. The ASEAN members, though, are watching closely how the nation fares.

The survey respondents were particularly concerned about the South China Sea and "China's militarisation and assertive actions, followed by Chinese encroachments in the exclusive economic zones and continental shelves."

As a foil against Chinese encroachment, the respondents said they would welcome strategic influence and regional security from the United States. The respondents having "confidence in the US as a strategic partner and provider of regional security increased from 34.9% to 55.4% this year," the report authors wrote.

The "State of Southeast Asia" survey was carried out between Nov. 18 and Jan. 10, after the U.S. presidential election and while Donald Trump remained in office. The views toward the United States may be the result of post-election optimism, the report authors note, but also could signal a robust shift. Wrote the authors: "Only time will tell if the region's renewed trust in the U.S. is misplaced or not."