State of Southeast Asia Survey 2023: It takes three to tango
15 Feb 2023|

A tango for two is an intricate, demanding affair, often daunting even for the most skilled dancers. In the case of ASEAN, the grouping must tread carefully in order to navigate two separate tangos, one with China and the other with the United States, to ensure a peaceful, stable and secure Southeast Asia. But China and the United States are increasingly loath to venture onto the same dance floor, making it difficult for ASEAN to find a way to balance the interests of both powers while still ensuring regional security and economic cooperation.

After decades of peaceful economic cooperation, a tectonic geopolitical shift starting with a low-boil US–China trade war four years ago has now developed into moves to decouple the world’s two largest economies amid calls for ‘China containment’. This is against a background of greater militarisation after the invasion of Ukraine, rising protectionism and stronger nationalistic sentiments around the world.

In the report on the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute’s latest State of Southeast Asia Survey, such concerns are reflected even more starkly. Almost 60% of Southeast Asians are concerned with unemployment and economic recession this year, with 57.1% saying that climate change was their top concern. But what was most striking was that increased military tensions became one of this year’s top three concerns, tied at third place with widening socioeconomic gaps and rising income disparity. Southeast Asian respondents’ frustrations with ASEAN, the region’s premier organisation, are also more palpable: 82.6% said that it is slow and ineffective in coping with the rapidly changing geopolitics, compared to 70.1% last year.

Parallels between Ukraine and Taiwan were drawn soon after Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022. Speaking at the Shangri-La Dialogue in June last year, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida warned, ‘Ukraine today may be East Asia tomorrow.’ Nearly half of the respondents expressed serious concerns over the invasion, and at least a third said that they were somewhat concerned. The dotted lines between Russia and China can’t be missed, given the rather untimely proclamation of a ‘no limits’ partnership between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping just days before the invasion and China’s refusal to condemn Russia after the invasion.

Perhaps most telling of all the findings in this year’s survey, alongside concerns of increased military tensions, are worries over a potential conflict in the Taiwan Strait and other unresolved disputes with China. In a question on hostilities in the Taiwan Strait, 43.3% of respondents said that such an event could destabilise the entire region. Another 28.7% are worried that ASEAN countries may be forced to take sides. On the question of their country’s responses to such a conflict, 45.6% said that their governments should oppose the use of force using diplomatic measures. Another third of respondents felt that remaining neutral in a conflict between China and Taiwan would be wise. There was little appetite for sanctions or demonstration of support for either China or Taiwan. These reactions provide a bellwether to how the region is thinking about a potential conflict, but ultimately it will boil down to who the provocateur is, the circumstances surrounding the provocation and whether the US and/or its allies are involved.

China remains the undisputed economic power in Southeast Asia, but its economic-influence rating declined from 76.7% in 2022 to 59.9% this year. The decline is likely due to China’s long zero-Covid policy through most of 2022. The significant margins between China and the US mean that it is unlikely that China can be unseated in the foreseeable future (the US scored 10.5% in 2023, just a smidgen higher than its score of 9.8% the previous year). Misgivings about China’s economic strength continue to dominate, with 64.5% of the region saying that they were concerned about its influence. When it comes to exercising political and strategic influence in the region, China is again top-ranked at 41.5%, albeit with a significant drop from 54.4% the year before. Worries about China exercising this form of influence remain high at 68.5%, albeit dropping from 76.4% last year. Xi’s foreign policy moves such as taking coercive measures against trading partners and employing strong-arm tactics in the South China Sea may have added to elevated concerns.

Assessment of the Biden administration’s level of engagement with the region is fairly positive, with 39.4% of respondents saying that engagement has increased or increased significantly. This is a marked difference compared to the 2020 results for the Trump administration, where a clear majority of 77% of Southeast Asians felt that engagement had decreased significantly. But the US continues to fare badly in the economic sphere, with only 10.5% of Southeast Asians viewing it as carrying some clout. The US’s unwillingness to inject any meaningful economic agenda (beyond the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity at this point) has affected its ability to project greater influence in the region. This is contrasted with the views that it can be a reliable security partner; confidence levels increased from 42.6% last year to 47.2%. The US’s security-driven agenda has not gone unnoticed by Southeast Asia and is in fact welcomed by more respondents in Indonesia, Singapore and Vietnam.

When it comes to specific US- or China-led initiatives such as the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework or the Global Security Initiative, the region tended to be agnostic, with 41.8% saying they were unsure about the IPEF and 44.5% expressing little or no confidence in the benefits of the GSI. A third of those with negative views about the IPEF said that US–China competition would worsen, while another 24.2% said that the IPEF would hasten the US–China decoupling process. Among those with little or no confidence in the GSI, a third were concerned that it would increase tensions between the US and China, and another third feared that ASEAN would be forced to take sides. It’s worth noting that a higher proportion of respondents (61.1%) chose the US over China (38.9%) as compared to 2022 in a hypothetical question that forced such a choice.

More established minilateral initiatives such as the Quad garnered greater appreciation, with 50.4% saying that the Quad was ‘positive and reassuring’ for the region. Despite lingering misgivings over the threat to ASEAN centrality and ASEAN-led mechanisms, more than a third felt that the Quad would be complementary to ASEAN, and another third said the Quad would be beneficial to the region. The region’s reception to the Quad may have warmed after 2021 with the promise of practical, tangible benefits, but there is still a modicum of wariness towards Beijing’s response.

Levels of trust in India increased across all ASEAN countries (except Cambodia) in this year’s results. Overall trust in India jumped from 16.6% last year to 25.7% this year, and distrust ratings dropped in tandem. The prevailing reason given was that India was seen as a responsible stakeholder in international law (25.4%) but also that its military power could be an asset for global peace and security (18.2%).

These findings are not hard to explain. India has maintained a quiet position of neutrality on the Ukraine–Russia war due to its longstanding relationship with Russia. India has refused to condemn Russia with the other Quad members, yet its willingness to demonstrate pushback with Prime Minister Narendra Modi telling Putin that ‘today’s era is not of war’ shows India’s ability to exercise foreign policy independence. Historically, the global south recognises India’s de facto non-alignment leadership. In the case of India’s position on climate change, for instance, the global south found cover in India’s refusal to accept the phase-out of coal at the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26), which bought the developing world time in the global energy transition.

So, if China and the US won’t tango, what are ASEAN’s choices? Pragmatic as always, ASEAN’s favourite choices for partners remain the European Union and Japan. The top choice of a ‘third party’ to hedge against US–China strategic rivalry remained the EU at 42.9%, and Japan was the second choice at 26.6%. But attention appears to have been drawn to India this year as a surprising third choice (11.3%) overtaking Australia. Perhaps ASEAN’s reason for looking to India can be explained in its use of ‘strategic ambiguity’ in foreign policy decisions and the strategic counterweight that it can offer. But it remains to be seen if India will ask for ASEAN’s dance card. Even if it did, can India move in lockstep?