No, Southeast Asians no longer prefer China to the US – BenarNews

„There are three kinds of lies: lies, bad lies and statistics” can be updated for the modern age in the context of the 2024 State Survey of Southeast Asia with „confusion, bad confusion and opinion polls”. Elites of the Region, published this month by a Singapore-based think tank

year Report By ISEAS-Yusof Ishaq Institute It has sparked some alarming headlines.

„Majorities in Southeast Asia would choose China over US, survey suggests” Al Jazeera went with Nikki Asia „Most ASEAN people prefer China to US, survey finds”.

Guess what the Chinese media ran with? „Survey Shows Southeast Asians Support China Over US”.

Did the survey really reveal this? Yes, but if it only takes a cursory flick through its pages to copy and paste some regional averages.

The headlines were largely generated by responses to Question 31, an annual feature of the survey, which asks respondents: „If ASEAN were forced to align itself with one of its strategic rivals, which one would it choose?”

On a regional average, 49.5% of respondents in Southeast Asia this year said they would choose the US over China, compared to 61.1% in the 2023 poll. That represents a 1 percentage point difference, regardless of the drop in American support to 50.5% who said they would choose China over the United States.

In a survey of 1,994 pollsters, the difference in choosing China over the U.S. falls below about 20 points — perhaps not a reliable measure of how 660 million people feel about the most pressing geopolitical issue of the day.

Chinese Communist Party foreign policy chief Wang Yi (left) shares a brief moment with some ASEAN foreign ministers during the ASEAN Foreign Ministers' Meeting in Jakarta on July 13, 2023. [Tatan Syuflana/Pool via AP]

The survey averages figures for ASEAN at an equal rate per country, so tiny Brunei, which reliably chooses China over the United States, gets the same weighting as the more populous and geopolitically important Philippines. to us

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ASEAN between the US and China begs the question whether national governments

It is hard to imagine that such a weighty geopolitical decision could ever be made by consensus in a 10-nation bloc whose members cannot agree on how to handle the civil war in Myanmar. This makes the regional average worthless as a metric because it predicts an improbable outcome.

Support China?

A closer look at the pro-China swing raises other questions. As the answers to question 31 indicate, if China has become more popular, one would expect China's popularity in the survey to rise. But not so.

Question 38, „How confident are you that China will 'do the right thing' to contribute to global peace, security, prosperity and governance?” In 2023 29.5% of all respondents said they were „hopeful” or „very hopeful”. But this year, that number has dropped to 24.8%.

Question 22 of the survey asked, „In your view, which country/region is the most influential economic power in Southeast Asia?”

About 59.5% of China this year said it was down again from last year. Of those who said China was the most important economic partner, 67.4% said they were concerned about China's growing influence this year, a higher percentage than in 2023.

This year, 43.9% answered China for the 24th question, which is, „In your view, which country/regional organization has the most political and strategic influence in Southeast Asia?” This was higher than last year. But 73.5% who said so were worried about Beijing's growing regional political and strategic influence.

Half of all respondents expressed concern that ASEAN is becoming increasingly fragmented, the survey makes clear. Digging into the questions, one finds that sentiments in the region are evenly divided between the two superpowers.

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US Vice President Kamala Harris looks on as ASEAN leaders prepare for a group photo during the ASEAN-US Summit in Jakarta on September 6, 2023. [Bay Ismoyo/Pool via AP]

This year the regional average is tilted in China's favor, „If forced to align itself with one of ASEAN's strategic rivals, which should it choose?” But that figure is heavily skewed by a few countries.

In the 2023 survey, 58.9% of Laotians chose the United States over China. As Vientiane is one of Beijing's closest allies, it always seemed like a very strange decision.

Additionally, the 2023 results are an anomaly, as roughly 80% of Lao respondents in the 2021 and 2022 surveys favored China over the United States.

The 2024 results were heavily swayed by the Bruneians, who were not very influential in regional geopolitics. The number of respondents choosing the United States dropped from 45% in 2023 to 29.9% in 2024. The percentage of Thais choosing the US over China fell from 56.9% to 47.8% in 2023.

In a result that reflects anger over Washington's support for Israel in the Gaza war, the percentage of Malaysians voting for Washington in Beijing fell from 45.2% to 24.9% in the past year, while in Indonesia it fell from 46.3% to 26.8%.

The results could easily change next year, when the 2025 poll is released.

The split of ASEAN

Majorities from Brunei, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia and Thailand said they would choose China over the US. Majorities from Cambodia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore and Vietnam chose the US over China. State-wise, the regional block is equally divided 5-5.

American policymakers can take some solace in the persistence of pro-American figures in ASEAN over the years.

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In this year's survey, 61.5% of Singaporeans chose the US over China, up from 61.1% in last year's survey. 79.0% of Vietnamese chose Washington over China, up from 77.9% last year. And 83% of Filipinos favor the US, up from 78.8% last year.

But the pro-China camp is fluctuating.

Laos dropped out of it in last year's survey. Indonesia and Malaysia only became China-US in the 2022 survey, but they were previously China rather than US.

Cambodians swing back and forth. Bruneians are the only group to consistently choose China over the US since these surveys began.

Three Southeast Asian states—Singapore, the Philippines, and Vietnam—are solidly pro-US, with only one consistently pro-China (Brunei) and the others fluctuating each year.

This should really worry Beijing more than Washington. America's dignitaries are not coming back. Beijing's supporters appear fickle and flighty.

David Hutt is a Research Fellow at the Central European Institute of Asian Studies (CEIAS) and Southeast Asia Correspondent at the Embassy. He writes Looking at Europe in Southeast Asia newsletter. As a journalist, he has been covering Southeast Asian politics since 2014. The views expressed herein are his own and do not reflect the position of Benarnews.

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