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U.S. loses its spot to China as Southeast Asia’s most favored ally, survey shows

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A majority of Southeast Asians would align with China and not the U.S. if forced to pick sides, though some countries that feel threatened by Beijing’s South China Sea claims still prefer Washington, according to a regional survey.

This is the first time Beijing has edged past Washington since 2020 when the annual survey first posed the question. The U.S. as a preferred choice dropped to 49.5% from 61.1% last year.

The survey was conducted by Singapore-based think tank ASEAN Studies Centre at ISEAS–Yusof Ishak Institute between Jan. 3 and Feb. 23 with 1,994 respondents from academia, business, government, civil society and the media.

Respondents were from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, with the highest number of participants from Singapore and Indonesia.

China at over 50% emerged as the most strategically relevant partner for ASEAN, edging past the U.S., while Japan continues to be the most trusted major power in the region, the survey revealed.

China and ASEAN have mutually been the largest trading partners for four consecutive years, with trade volume reaching $911.7 billion in 2023.

However, half of the respondents also expressed distrust toward China, with 45.5% saying that they fear Beijing could use its economic and military power to threaten their country’s interest and sovereignty, the report said.

China’s aggressive behavior in the South China Sea is the Philippines’ (90.2%) and Vietnam’s (72.5%) top concern, the region’s two frontline South China Sea claimant states.

The Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. told Bloomberg last month that his government’s claims on certain parts of the South China sea should not be viewed as provoking China.

“This is not poking the bear, as it were. We are trying to do quite the opposite. We are trying to keep things at a manageable level, to continue the dialogue, whatever they are, at every level,” he said.

Vietnam has also asserted sovereignty over islands in the South China Sea though Beijing has brushed aside those claims.

The survey revealed the U.S. still holds majority support among The Philippines (83.3%) and Vietnam (79%) respondents, who are inclined to align with the U.S. over China.

“While China has gained some ground in Southeast Asia in terms of garnering favorable public perception, it is worth noting that some of its most acute territorial disputes are also located in the region,” said Kenddrick Chan of LSE IDEAS, the foreign policy think-tank of the London School of Economics and Political Science.

ASEAN should build up its resilience and unity to fend off pressures from the two major powers, the U.S. and China, nearly half of the survey respondents said.

Global macroeconomic uncertainty continues to be a concern for the region, with a majority of Southeast Asians (57.7%) fearing unemployment and an economic recession. China’s economic slowdown might have driven those concerns, according to the survey.

Other concerns include the Israel-Hamas conflict in October 2023 and the subsequent Houthi attacks in the Red Sea. Though geographically, they may be happening far away, the impacts are felt through supply chain disruptions which may directly impact energy and food prices.

“This year’s survey results clearly reflect heightened regional concerns over economic issues and the risk that unrestrained geopolitical rivalry that can adversely affect the region’s interests in the short to medium term,” Choi Shing Kwok, director and CEO at ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute said in a statement.

“At the same time, the results also tell us that the region remains hopeful that major powers can cooperate on issues of mutual benefit and welcomes other major powers in the region to engage more closely with ASEAN.”

Chinese President Xi Jinping met with Indonesia’s president-elect Prabowo Subianto on Monday for talks, according to Xinhua news agency.

Xi said China views its relations with Indonesia from a strategic and long-term perspective, and is willing to deepen all-round strategic cooperation with Indonesia.

Beijing on Monday said ministers from Laos, Vietnam and Timor-Leste will separately visit China from April 2 to 5 at the invitation of Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, in a bid to shore up cooperation.



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