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Southeast Asians see China replacing US as regional power, survey finds

The flags of ASEAN nations raised in MH Thamrin Avenue, Jakarta, during 18th ASEAN Summit, Jakarta, May 8, 2011. (Gunawan Kartapranata/Wikimedia Commons)
January 31, 2019

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

Three-quarters of educated professionals surveyed across the ASEAN bloc say China is the country most likely to fill a vacuum created by a perceived growing lack of American interest in the region, according to a report published by a Singaporean think-tank Tuesday.

More than 1,000 respondents across the 10 member-states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations were asked about geopolitical, economic and security matters affecting the region, for the report by the ASEAN Studies Center at the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.

Sizeable percentages responded that China’s influence in the region was rising compared with a waning U.S. influence. Still, almost 70 percent indicated that the two superpowers were “on a collision course in Southeast Asia,” the report said.

In response to one of 32 questions, 74.1 percent said they expected China “to vie for political leadership in response to the growing indifference of the U.S. towards Southeast Asia and ASEAN.”

“The region does not see any viable leadership other than China to replace the U.S. among other possible contenders – the European Union (EU), India, Japan or Russia,” said the 38-page report titled “The State of Southeast Asia: 2019.”

China also eclipsed the U.S. as the country or regional organization with the most economic, political and strategic influence in Southeast Asia, according to the report.

It also found that the American “Indo-Pacific” strategy aimed at countering Chinese regional influence was “unlikely to make any headway” in Southeast Asia, and the level of U.S. engagement in the region had decreased under Donald Trump’s presidency, according to views expressed in the surveys.

In addition, more than a quarter of respondents expressed little or no confidence in the reliability of the United States “as a strategic partner and provider of regional security support,” the report said.

In response to specific questions about China’s influence, only about 9 percent viewed China becoming “a benign and benevolent power,” while 45.4 percent saw China becoming “a revisionist power with an intent to turn Southeast Asia into its sphere of influence.”

And while 30 percent responded favorably to China’s One Belt, One Road initiative to finance and build infrastructure projects around the globe, 47 percent said Beijing’s strategic endeavor would “bring ASEAN member-states closer into China’s orbit.”

Respondents were asked for their opinions on One Belt, One Road (OBOR) projects taking shape in their countries in light of the Sri Lankan and Malaysian experiences with the China-backed Hambantota port and East Coast Rail Link projects.

Sri Lanka has become straddled with a huge debt and was forced to grant China a 99-year lease on the port in order to repay its loans from the Chinese in building the project, while Malaysia’s new government is considering canceling or shelving the rail project as too expensive.

Seventy percent from across ASEAN – including 84.2 percent in Malaysia, 79 percent in the Philippines, and more than 72 percent in Indonesia and Thailand – responded that “my government should be cautious in negotiating [OBOR] projects to avoid getting into unsustainable financial debts with China.”

The report noted that it was based on responses given by 1,008 citizens of all the ASEAN countries “who are regional experts and stakeholders from the policy, research, business, civil society and media communities.”

“As such, the results of this survey are not meant to be representative. Rather, it aims to present a general view of prevailing attitudes among those in a position to inform or influence policy on regional, political, economic and social issues and concerns.”

Forty-two percent of those surveyed were working in academia and think-tanks and nearly 33 percent were employed in the governmental, inter-governmental and international organizational sectors.

The survey was conducted online between mid-November and early December 2018.

Singapore’s Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS) is an autonomous research organization established by its parliament in 1968. It was renamed the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute in 2015.