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China topples US as SE Asia's favoured partner, ISEAS-Yusof Ishak survey shows

Bloomberg • 3 min read
China topples US as SE Asia's favoured partner, ISEAS-Yusof Ishak survey shows
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China has dethroned the US to become the top alignment choice for Southeast Asians as Washington loses ground on a range of key issues from regional economic engagement to the Israel-Hamas War, according to a new survey.

A survey of 1,994 Southeast Asians by the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute published Tuesday shows China’s popularity in a head-to-head race with the US climbing from 38.9% last year to 50.5% in 2024. Among individual nations, Beijing garnered some three out of four votes in Muslim-majority Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei.  

“Confidence in the US has waned,” the survey states. “This could be attributed partly to the escalating rivalry between China and the US, which led to an uptick in anxiety about the US’ growing strategic and political influence.”

Southeast Asian nations have largely embraced the US as a necessary security presence as the Biden administration ramps up military-to-military cooperation in a bid to counter Bejing’s growing defence prowess. But the region also counts on China as a key financier and trading partner at a time regional leaders seek new investments to bolster their own economies.

Part of the issue for the US are concerns over economic engagement. Southeast Asians are “increasingly unsure” about the effectiveness of the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity, a US-led endeavour to increase trade that’s been criticized for its lack of meaningful market access.

China is once again seen as the most influential economic and political-strategic power in the region, “outpacing the US by significant margins in both domains,” it says.

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The latest poll also puts the Israel-Hamas conflict at the top of the list of the region’s geopolitical concerns, with a large proportion of respondents worried “Israel’s attack on Gaza has gone too far.” 

Nearly a third of respondents were wary that the Middle East war would catalyze the rise of extremist activities, while diminished trust in international law and a rules-based order was the second-top concern.

“The ongoing Israel-Hamas conflict has emerged as a contentious issue in Southeast Asia, commanding significant attention in the region’s domestic politics,” the survey says. “Despite its geographical distance, the conflict has reverberated strongly across this diverse multi-racial and multi-religious region.”

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Whether those sentiments are responsible for the US’ drop in standing among regional nations is unclear, said Bonnie Glaser, the head of the Indo-Pacific program at the German Marshall Fund. “Without more data it’s impossible to answer that,” she said during a presentation of the results.

The US has diplomatically and militarily backed Israel in its quest to destroy Hamas, in the aftermath of the group’s Oct 7 attack.  

While sentiments have broadly shifted towards China, tensions in the South China Sea was the second-biggest geopolitical concern in the latest study. In a hypothetical choice between the US and China, Washington still commands majority support from the Philippines at 83.3% and Vietnam at 79%, which are at the forefront of the territorial disputes with Beijing.

Broadly, “there is a growing sense of optimism among Southeast Asians regarding their future relations with China,” the report states. “The Philippines emerged as the most cautious.”

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