Flags of member countries attending the 35th Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit in Bangkok in November 2019. Photo: AFP / Romeo Gacad

Southeast Asians are still reluctant to take sides when it comes to US-China rivalry in their region, according to the latest 2022 State of Southeast Asia survey by the respected ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore.

More than a 10th of respondents in a regionwide survey published this month said they think “remaining neutral is impractical” and that the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) bloc must choose between the two superpowers.

“Hedging is a luxury middle powers cannot afford for long, especially when the stakes are high, superpowers are pushy and the rivalry is intensifying,” said Rahul Mishra, a senior lecturer at the University of Malaya’s Asia-Europe Institute. 

As that competition escalates, a growing number of scholars and opinion-makers think the region’s traditional “hedging” between the two superpowers needs to be replaced by something new, according to the 2022 State of Southeast Asia report published last week by the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute

Some 11.1% of respondents said the region should now choose between one of the two major powers, up from just 3.4% in the 2021 survey. Compared with the previous year’s report, fewer respondents thought ASEAN should continue its position of not siding with either superpower, down to 26.6% from 30.6%. 

“Practically speaking, for issues that are non-consequential, it is easy to stay neutral, but for key strategic issues, sometimes being neutral may not be an option, it may also be seen as a form of strategic weakness,” said Joanne Lin, a lead researcher at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute’s ASEAN Studies Centre and one of the survey’s authors. 

“Should US-China tensions increase, with a decoupling of the two superpowers,” she added, “it will be even more challenging to stay neutral given that the world is interconnected and somehow ASEAN will end up having to choose a certain supply chain, a technology provider or a position in the South China Sea.”

Myanmar protesters in front of the Chinese embassy in Yangon after the February 1, 2021, coup. Photo: Facebook

Hunter Marston, a researcher on Southeast Asia at the Australian National University, pointed out that most respondents still support ASEAN enhancing its own resiliency, and “the number of those advocating against neutrality and for choosing sides is really a minority.” 

The survey’s questions also pertain to what ASEAN should do, not what individual states should do, he added.

However, when broken down by country, the findings are stark. The percentage of Burmese respondents who said ASEAN has to choose between one of the two superpowers increased from 8.3% in last year’s survey to 30.6% in the recently-released study.

This may be expected due to the ongoing crisis started by last year’s military coup. 

But the percentage of Vietnamese respondents who agreed that “remaining neutral is impractical” rose from 1.1% to 9.7%, and the percentage of Singaporeans and Indonesians increased three-fold and more than double, respectively. 

No Cambodian respondents agreed with this position last year, but 13.6% now say they were in favor of choosing sides.

Every year, respondents are asked by the survey’s authors: If ASEAN was forced to align itself with one of the two strategic rivals, the US or China, which should it choose?

In last year’s survey, only 46.2% of Cambodian respondents said China – and the remainder said the US. According to this year’s survey, some 81.5% of Cambodian respondents now think ASEAN should choose China over the US, only less than a percentage point fewer than Laos, who have long thought the same. 

Asked for their thoughts on China, some 25.9% of Cambodian respondents now see it as “a benign and benevolent power,” up from only 3.8% last year. The next highest national cohort who agrees with this view is Thailand, but only 9.4% of Thai respondents said China was a benevolent power. 

Cambodians were also outliers when it came to the question of whether China is “a revisionist power and intends to turn Southeast Asia into its sphere of influence.” Only 16% of Cambodian respondents agreed, compared with a regional average of 41.7%. 

Chinese President Xi Jinping with Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen during a meeting at the Peace Palace in Phnom Penh on October 13, 2016. Photo: AFP / Tang Chhin Sothy

Some 29.6% of Cambodians said they were “very confident” China will “do the right thing” to contribute to global peace, security, prosperity and governance, up from 3.8% last year. 

“The data illustrates an enormous swing over the last year in Cambodian perceptions of the US and China, with the Kingdom appearing to be something of an outlier when compared to other ASEAN states,” said Bradley Murg, a distinguished senior research fellow at the Cambodia Institute for Cooperation and Peace.

“Perhaps most interesting is that on a range of questions, it’s difficult to locate a ‘Southeast Asian view’ [on China and the US] in light of the significant variance in responses when broken down to the national level,” he added. 

There was a slight increase in Filipinos and Vietnamese who picked China over the US, but the vast majority of respondents from those countries still favored Washington. Noteworthy, the percentage of Indonesians who opted for China increased from 35.7% to 44.3%.

There was also a noticeable downturn of support for China in Myanmar – down to 8% from 51.9% last year, which was likely due to the military coup – as well as from Singaporeans, Malaysians and Thais.

Today, more than two-thirds of Cambodians and Laos think ASEAN should side with China. Most Bruneian respondents also agreed with this.

But more than two-thirds of Burmese, Filipinos and Singaporeans now say America. And it appears that the typical hedgers, like Singapore and Malaysia, are gravitating further toward the US.

Almost half of the respondents to the latest State of Southeast Asia survey still thought ASEAN should “enhance its resilience and unity to fend off pressure from the two major powers.”

But there was an increase in the number of people who thought the best option was to seek out “third parties” to broaden its strategic space and options. 

Again, though, there also appears to be greater uncertainty over which. The European Union remained the first choice as a preferred “third party” with which to diversify Southeast Asia’s options, yet the number of respondents who selected it was down slightly. Japan, still in second place, saw its support fall from 37.4% to 29.2%.

All this points to what analysts say is greater uncertainty among Southeast Asians over how to respond to the increasingly fraught US-China rivalry, as well as their concerns about how well suited the ASEAN bloc is to dealing with these considerable problems. 

Some 70.1% of respondents thought ASEAN to be “slow and ineffective, and thus cannot cope with fluid political and economic developments.”