Majority in Southeast Asia would choose China over US, survey suggests

Survey by Singapore-based think tank points to Beijing’s growing influence in the region.

The US-China rivalry has reverberated across Asia [Brian Snyder/Reuters]

Taipei, Taiwan – More than half of people in Southeast Asia would side with China over the United States if forced to choose, a survey has found, underscoring Beijing’s growing influence in the region.

In the State of Southeast Asia 2024 survey released this week, 50.5 percent of respondents said they would favour China, up more than 11 percentage points compared with last year.

The latest edition of the survey, conducted annually by the Singapore-based ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, is the first to show China being preferred over the US.

Last year, only 38.9 percent of respondents preferred China, with 61.1 percent favouring the US.

China was also chosen as the most influential economic power in the region by most respondents, with 59.9 percent of respondents picking it over the US.

Despite acknowledging China’s clout, respondents also expressed distrust of Beijing, with 67.5 percent of respondents saying they feared its growing economic influence.

Concern was highest in Vietnam, where worry was expressed by 87.7 percent of respondents, followed closely by Myanmar at 87.6 percent, Thailand at 80.3 percent and the Philippines at 75.8 percent.

Just over half of survey respondents said they fear China might use its economic and military power to coerce countries in the region, while another 45.5 percent said they did not trust China.

Japan, the US, and the European Union were chosen as the most trustworthy regional powers by 58.5 percent, 42.4 percent and 41.5 percent of respondents, respectively.

Bonnie Glaser, managing director of the Indo-Pacific programme at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, said the survey reflected the region’s complicated relationship with China.

“The views of China reflect the complexity of most [Southeast Asian] nations with China,” Glaser told Al Jazeera.

“They recognise China’s growing clout, but at the same time, fear potential Chinese economic coercion, oppose threats to their sovereignty, and generally don’t trust China to do the right thing. SEA countries seek diversity in their relationships.”

While the world’s second-largest economy offers opportunities for trade and investment, Beijing has also provoked anger with its handling of issues such as the South China Sea, where it claims a vast expanse of maritime territory in violation of an international arbitration decision.

Ian Chong, a non-resident scholar at Carnegie China, cautioned that the survey results should be taken as a snapshot of how university-educated Southeast Asians felt during January and February of 2024.

“It’s not necessarily pro-China. It’s anti-US sentiment tied to support for Israel’s excessive actions in Gaza, and also the fact that support for Israel means the US is willing to veto and stall UN processes,” Chong told Al Jazeera.

Despite geopolitical tensions between the US and China, the economy trumped other concerns for those surveyed.

Unemployment and the prospect of a recession were named the top concerns for the region by 57.7 percent of respondents, followed by climate change (53.4 percent) and “intensifying economic tensions between major powers” (47 percent).

“The region continues to express fears of bleak economic prospects with the global economy in the state that it is. A majority of Southeast Asians fear unemployment and economic recession,” the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute said in a report accompanying the survey.

Israel’s war in Gaza was named as the most pressing geopolitical concern – with especially high levels of concern in Muslim-majority Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia – followed by aggressive behaviour in the South China Sea, scam operations and the Russian-Ukraine War.

Asked about the war in Gaza, 29.7 percent of respondents expressed concern the conflict could encourage religious extremism, while 27.5 percent said it would damage international law and the rules-based order.

“The ongoing Israel-Hamas conflict has emerged as a contentious issue in Southeast Asia, commanding significant attention in the region’s domestic politics,” the report said.

“Despite its geographical distance, the conflict has reverberated strongly across this diverse multi-racial and multi-religious region.”

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies