Chinese President Xi Jinping (back-right) and Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte (back-left) attend a signing ceremony after a bilateral meeting during the Belt and Road Forum at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China May 15, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Etienne Oliveau/Pool

Seventy percent of respondents to a survey conducted by the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore believe that Southeast Asia should be cautious when negotiating with China on its massive Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) infrastructure project.

The survey, which was quoted in a report by Reuters on January 6, drew on responses from 1,008 people in all ten members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or Asean.

The survey found the main concern is that regional nations may be trapped in unsustainable debt to China. That perception was strongest in Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand, the survey showed.

Nearly half of the respondents said that BRI would bring Asean “closer into China’s orbit”, one-third were of the impression that the project lacked transparency and 16% believed it would finally fail.

At the same time the study showed that people in Asean countries are increasingly skeptical of America’s commitment to the region as a strategic partner, while China’s reach is growing both politically and economically.

Seventy three percent of the respondents believe that China now holds the greatest economic influence in the region and has more clout politically and strategically than the United States.

Six out of ten respondents felt that US influence has deteriorated from a year ago and two-thirds believed US engagement with Southeast Asia had declined.

About a third said they had little or no confidence in the US as a strategic partner and guarantor of regional security.

At the same time, fewer than one in ten saw China as a “benign and benevolent power”, with nearly half saying Beijing possessed “an intent to turn Southeast Asia into its sphere of influence.”

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