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China is most influential in South-east Asia, but has little trust: Iseas survey

SINGAPORE — China wields the most influence within South-east Asia, with the United States losing ground to its rival not just economically but also in terms of political and strategic influence in the region, a survey released on Monday (Jan 7) showed.

China is most influential in South-east Asia, but has little trust: Iseas survey

A survey to gather the prevailing attitude on regional political, economic and social issues found that the majority of respondents see China as having the most economic influence in the region.

SINGAPORE — China wields the most influence within South-east Asia, with the United States losing ground to its rival not just economically but also in terms of political and strategic influence in the region, a survey released on Monday (Jan 7) showed.

However, the findings also revealed that more than half of respondents, who are all from the South-east Asian region, have either little or no confidence that China “will do the right thing” in contributing to global peace, security, prosperity and governance.

The survey, titled State of Southeast Asia: 2019, was done by the Asean Studies Centre at the think-tank Iseas-Yusof Ishak Institute. Conducted between Nov 18 and Dec 5 last year, it canvassed views from 1,008 academics, policymakers, business people, civil society leaders and the media.

The aim was to gather the prevailing attitude on regional political, economic and social issues.

More than 73 per cent of the respondents are of the view that China’s economic influence “reigns supreme” in the region. But this is not entirely surprising, said the survey report.

China has been the largest trading partner of the Association of South-east Asian Nations (Asean) since 2009, with bilateral trade crossing the US$500 billion mark in 2017.

Coming in second place, surprisingly, is the Asean regional grouping — ahead of the US and Japan — with 10.7 per cent of respondents saying it has the most economic influence. The US trailed at 7.9 per cent.

In addition, nearly half of the respondents — at 45.2 per cent — consider China as having the most influence in political and strategic matters. The US came in second at 30.5 per cent, followed by Asean at 20.8 per cent.

Dr Tang Siew Mun, who heads the Asean Studies Centre and the research team conducting the survey, told TODAY that there is a conventional wisdom that China holds sway in the economic realm, while the US wields its influence in the political and strategic domains.

But that has to be revisited in light of the survey results as “conventional wisdom has not been tested until now”, he added.

It is now clear that China has made some headway in the diplomatic and political spheres, while the US is losing ground.

Slightly more than half of the respondents expressed little trust in China, despite its growing influence. Dr Tang said that it could be due to the “misalignment of China’s national interest with the larger common global interest”. Differences in political ideology may also be a factor, he added.

A survey in 2017, also conducted by the Asean Studies Centre, had found that more than 70 per cent of respondents express little or no confidence in China.

However, Dr Tang said that the results from the two surveys should not be compared as there is a difference in sample size, among others.

FALLING BEHIND

Under former President Barack Obama’s administration, Dr Tang noted that the US attempted to arrest the “strategic slide” through his “pivot to Asia” policy.

Announced in 2011, the core of that policy was: America will play a leadership role in Asia for decades to come.

But in 2017, as China was expanding its claims in the South China Sea, Donald Trump’s ascension to presidency sent jitters across the region. Close US allies such as Vietnam and the Philippines wondered whether the US will continue to engage South-east Asia and keep China at bay.

The latest survey appears to reflect lingering pessimism about US’ engagement in South-east Asia under the Trump administration.

Nearly seven in 10 respondents believe that US engagement has gone down substantially. Similarly, 59 per cent of respondents were of the view that US power and influence at the global stage has either “deteriorated or deteriorated substantially”.

On top of that, less than a third of respondents expressed confidence in the US being a reliable strategic partner and provider of regional security.

In the past year, though, US defence secretary Jim Mattis sought to allay those fears, pledging to uphold decades-old alliances.

That was before he resigned late last month, sending shockwaves that reverberated across Asia.

In a rebuke of President Trump, Mr Mattis said that the US leader’s foreign policies are destructive to American influence and power. The US, he added, has lost sight of the need to compete for global power against Russia and China.

Observers said that Mr Mattis’ resignation and his rebuke raised questions on the US’ level of engagement in Asia.

Then, came the Asia Reassurance Initiative Act. It was signed into law by President Trump on the final day of 2018, which the White House described as a “multifaceted strategy” to increase the US’ security, economic interests and values in the region.

Dr Tang said the Act is a “game plan” to regain US’ primacy in the region.

It is noteworthy, however, that it was the US Congress and not the Trump administration that started the ball rolling to raise the level of US engagement, he added.

“This is a good start but it remains to be seen to what extent the Trump administration can put the novel ideas of the Act into practice, given the president's aversion to free trade and multilateralism,” noted Dr Tang.

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