A recent survey of Southeast Asian perception of China by Singapore-based Institute of Southeast Asian Studies reveals interesting facts that may have implications for our Act East policy and help our policy makers calibrate their approach towards the region. State of Southeast Asia 2021 survey, tracking the trust and distrust ratings of major powers in the region, asserts “two juxtaposing trend lines with regard to Southeast Asian perceptions towards China, as simultaneously the most influential and most distrusted power in the region”.
In contrast to China’s trust quotient going downward, the US image in the eyes of Southeast Asians improved, even in countries apparently leaning heavily towards Beijing. More revealing is the confirmation that Beijing’s charm offensive towards Southeast Asia through its cloud and ground diplomacy, together with its apparent success in containing the pandemic domestically, its “mask and vaccine diplomacy” couldn’t change that trust deficit arising essentially from the former’s bellicosity, artificial island building and land grabbing, and most recently its new legislation allowing Chinese Coast Guard personnel to “take all necessary measures”, including the use of weapons, against foreign ships it deems as intruders.
The chief of Indonesia’s Maritime Security Agency has warned that China’s new coastguard law has heightened the risk of a “spill over conflict” into Indonesia’s territorial waters around the Natuna Islands. Views of China being a threat to Indonesia’s sovereignty are also present within the Indonesian military. Likewise, defence secretary Delfin Lorenzana of the Philippines is worried that China’s new law may cause an open conflict in the South China Sea. Vietnam believes that China’s new law in effect expands its grip over the South China Sea and increases the possibility of “dangerous encounters” between its coastguard and the maritime patrol forces of Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia and even the US.
The Survey chose 1,032 respondents for getting their opinion and found that the percentage of those who distrust China increased from 51.5% in 2019 to 60.4% in 2020 and 63% this year. In all Asean countries, levels of distrust towards China are higher than the trust levels. The share of respondents who think that “China is a revisionist power and intends to draw Southeast Asia into its sphere of influence” also increased from 38.2% in 2020 to 46.3% this year. More significant is only 1.5% in both last year’s and this year’s surveys view China as “a benign and benevolent power”.
72.3% of respondents in this cohort are concerned about China’s growing regional economic clout. This anxiety is even more and at a higher degree (88.6%) when it comes to China’s political-strategic clout, pronounced in both mainland and maritime parts of Southeast Asia. Behind this perception is the worry shared by 51.5% of respondents that “China’s economic and military power could be used to threaten Southeast Asian countries’ interest and sovereignty, including the use of economic tools and tourism to punish their foreign policy choices.”
In contrast to China’s deteriorating distrust ratings, Southeast Asians’ trust in the US has improved, increasing from 30.3% in 2020 to 48.4% in 2021. Likewise, the share of respondents having confidence in the US as a strategic partner and provider of regional security increased from 34.9% to 55.4%. Together with the EU, the US enjoys the strongest confidence of the Southeast Asians to provide leadership in maintaining the rules based order, upholding international law and championing the global free trade agenda.
This is despite the fact that China was the main mover of the RCEP Agreement and recently expressed intention to join the CPTPP while Washington chooses to stay out. Southeast Asians’ image of Washington seemed to have improved with the coming of the Biden administration. 61.5%, (up from 53.6% last year), favour aligning with the US over China, (38.5%, down from 46.4% last year), if the region was forced to pick sides. At the country level, seven Asean countries chose China last year, which has reversed to seven siding with the US this year with Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand switching sides.
Under such a perception shift, it’s up to Indian foreign policy makers to decide how they would calibrate their approaches in reaching out to Southeast Asia in the coming days.
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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