The State of Southeast Asia: 2020 Survey Report

For the second year running, the ASEAN Studies Centre at ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute conducted The State of Southeast Asia survey from 12 November to 1 December 2019. A total of 1,308 respondents from the ten ASEAN member states participated in the 2020 edition of the survey, which seeks to understand the perceptions of Southeast Asians on regional affairs and ASEAN’s engagements with its Dialogue Partners, especially the major powers.The survey which was conducted online drew from a specialised pool of respondents from five professional categories: research, business and finance, public sector, civil society, and the media. The purposive sampling method was used, based on two criteria: respondents must be Southeast Asian nationals and have adequate knowledge of regional affairs as inferred from their profession and job scope. The survey findings are not meant to be representative of the extant Southeast Asian view on regional affairs. They do, however, serve to present a general view of the prevailing attitudes among those in a position to inform or influence policy in ten ASEAN member states on regional political and economic issues.

The survey has eight sections: (1) background of respondents, (2) regional security outlook, (3) major powers’ regional influence and leadership, (4) geo- economics and regional integration, (5) geopolitics and regional architecture, (6) China and US’ engagements with the region, (7) perceptions of trust, and (8) soft power. The survey contains 58 questions, of which 18 touch on “baseline” issues which were included in last year’s survey. The remaining 40 questions, which are highlighted in the report with an asterisk (*), address new issues for the regional discourse in 2020. The findings for the “baseline” questions for the preceding and current years are presented side-by-side to facilitate comparative analysis. We have also taken the liberty to rearrange the ordering of the questions and organise them under new headings to improve the report’s clarity and cohesion. For the purpose of readability, the figures in this report are rounded up or down to the nearest one decimal point.


Domestic political instability (70.5%), economic downturn (68.5%) and the impact of climate change (66.8%) are the region’s most pressing security concerns.Terrorism is ranked last (44.6%), right after the concern over increased military tensions emanating from regional flashpoints such as the South China Sea, Taiwan Strait, and the Korean Peninsula (49.6%).


With regard to ASEAN, Southeast Asians are most concerned that its tangible benefits are not felt by the people (74.9%). They also share the concern that ASEAN is becoming an arena for major power competition, and its members may become proxies for the interests of a major power (73.2%). Additionally, respondents remain wary that the regional organisation is unable to cope with the fluid political and economic developments (68.6%).


Nearly one-third of the respondents (31.3%) believe that ASEAN should continue its position of “not taking sides” in the US-China strategic rivalry. Atthe same time, close to half of the respondents (48%) advocate the strengthening of ASEAN resilience and unity to fend off pressure from the two major powers. Collectively, these two positions posit a united and strong ASEAN as a pre-requisite for the regional organisation to maintain its autonomy and to avoid entanglement with either major power.


If ASEAN were forced to choose between the two major powers, a majority of the total respondents (53.6%) will cast their lot with the US. However, when the respondents are broken down into their nationality, the majority of respondents from seven ASEAN member states (Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar and Thailand) favour China over the US.


China is seen as the most influential economic and political-strategic power in the region, and outpaces the US by significant margins in both domains. However,China’s growing influence is not well-received by the region. Among respondents who view China as the most influential economic power, 71.9% are worried about its expanding influence. This negative sentiment is echoed by respondents who consider China to be most influential in the political and strategic sphere, with 85.4% expressing their concern.


The region’s confidence in the US is low. Close to half of the respondents (47%) have little or no confidence in the US as a strategic partner and provider of regional security. 77% observe that US engagement with Southeast Asia has declined under the Trump administration compared to the Obama administration. The region looks to Japan (31.7%) and the EU (20.5%) as its preferred strategic partner in response to the perception that US interest and commitment to the region have declined.


Japan is the most trusted major power among Southeast Asians, with 61.2% of the respondents expressing confidence in Japan to “do the right thing” to provide globalpublic goods. The EU is the second most trusted partner (38.7%), followed by the US (30.3%) and China (16.1%). India lost out to China by the narrowest of margins, with 16% of respondents having some degree of confidence that India will “do the right thing”.


Japan also shines in the soft power domain- define in this survey in term of tourism, education and language, as the region’s most favoured travel destination (26.2%). Although the US’ influence in economics and politics is perceived to be waning, its soft power continues to hold strong attraction, especially in tertiary education. The US is the region’s top choice for tertiary education (29.3%).


The EU is viewed favourably by Southeast Asians. Although 35.4% of respondents fear that the EU is “distracted with its internal affairs”, the organisationremains well respected in three aspects. First, respondents have confidence in the EU for the provision of global leadership – the EU is ranked first (33%) in “maintaining the rules-based order and upholding international law”, and second (25.5%) in “championing the global free trade agenda”. Second, the EU is the second most “preferred and trusted strategic partner” (31.7%) for ASEAN to broaden its strategic options in hedging against US-China rivalry, trailing after Japan (38.2%). Third, EU countries are the second most popular travel destination (19.7%) among Southeast Asians.


Most respondents believe that the US-China trade war bodes ill for the global economy with 41.4% worrying that the trade war “will spark a global economic downturn”. Despite news reports suggesting that Southeast Asia is benefitting from the outflows of manufacturing from China, 35.9% opine that their economy has suffered from the trade war in the short term, while 28% believe that the economic repercussions of the trade war will be enduring.


Partnership (RCEP) should not be limited by geography, with 55.8% supporting its future expansion of “to all qualified parties”. 12 Samsung is the telecommunication provider of choice (38.5%) to build 5G networks in ASEAN member states. Chinese companies are relatively competitive (24.6%) in the region and is the most preferred choice in Laos, Cambodia and Malaysia.

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