As souring relations between the United States and China continue to take center stage and grab all the geopolitical headlines, attention on ASEAN has increased. The region has become subject to a geopolitical tug of war, and despite its protestations, are being increasingly pressured to choose between the two superpowers. This situation makes research on ASEAN-China and ASEAN-US relations essential.
The ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore recently released the third edition of their yearly poll of policymakers, students, and scholars, titled “The State of Southeast Asia”. These surveys are thus far the only source of data that covers the entire Southeast Asia on questions of attitudes towards China. In contrast, Pew Research covers many countries, but not any Southeast Asian states besides Singapore (which was only included in 2021). While the data so far only covers three years, from 2019-2021, one can begin to see the contours of the views of the Southeast Asian elite on several key issues. Amongst them are hints of relations between China and ASEAN, which are enormously suggestive for decoding the trajectory of future relations.
China is overwhelmingly consistently regarded as the most influential economic power in Southeast Asia. 73.3% of respondents in 2019 named China as the most influential economic power, followed by 79.2% and 76.3% in 2020 and 2021 respectively. This dwarfs the entity with the second-highest votes – ASEAN itself, which polled at 10.7%, 8.3%, and 9.8% from 2019 to 2021. China’s votes are therefore around 7 to 8 times higher than ASEAN. Breakdown of perceptions from individual member states also generally follow this general trend, without any alarming fluctuations.
There is still much more ground to cover for one to get a full picture of attitudes within ASEAN towards China. Future surveys will need to take into account different survey respondents. For example, the Pew Research Center Spring 2021 Global Attitudes Survey, which accounts for respondents beyond policymaking circles, shows that Singaporeans generally view China favourably. Singapore remains the only Southeast Asian nation involved in that particular survey, and future studies can endeavour to include other ASEAN member states for a clearer regional view.
Nevertheless, the polls give important hints for us to recognise the nature of ASEAN-China relations. By showing that ASEAN policymakers recognise the overwhelming influence of China on the region, and therefore the necessity of engaging with the Chinese on economic issues, we perhaps cannot expect to see the region re-allocating its trading relationship with China for other options in the near future.
By Say Jye QUAH