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Foreign Policy

ASEAN Nations Are Neither Pro-America Nor Pro-China. They are Pro-ASEAN.

Apr 19, 2024
  • Brian Wong

    Assistant Professor in Philosophy, HKU and Rhodes Scholar

A recent poll conducted by the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute for its State of Southeast Asia 2024 report found that there had been a considerable shift amongst the surveyed on their attitudes towards ASEAN’s relationship with both China and the U.S.

Amongst the nearly 2,000 respondents polled across the 10 ASEAN nations, 50.5% indicated that if forced to choose between the two powers, they would prefer China, whilst only 49.5% selected the U.S. In 2023, only 38.9% chose China, whilst 61.1% opted for the U.S. Both 2021 and 2022 saw clear disparities between China and the U.S., with the latter edging out the former comfortably by margins of 14% or so. The largest economy in the region by far, Indonesia, has indicated a continual gravitation towards China over the past three years, with 44.3% of respondents opting to align with China in 2022, 53.7% in 2023, and 73.2% in 2024 – in the event of a showdown.

The poll featured informed, educated respondents from “academia, think-tanks, research groups, businesses, civil society, the media and regional or international organisations, as well as governments” who had been previously pre-screened for their understanding of the region.

In continuation of pre-existing trends, China was also viewed by a majority of the surveyed as the most influential economic, political, and strategic power in the region. Yet it is imperative that we do not mistake these results as signs that the ASEAN political and economic elite are more likely to be “pro-China” than “pro-U.S.”

Such reductionist description omits the underlying nuance: ASEAN nations are firmly aligned with their own self-interests. They will presently align with China in the event of a Sino-U.S. showdown, so long as doing so is more instrumentally effective in enabling them to fulfil domestic objectives; if aligning with the U.S. is seen as more conducive towards their own ends, these attitudes could well be reversed. We must not conflate the pragmatic pursuit of self-interest with an unquestioning fealty – China’s ‘popularity’ in the region requires active maintenance, and constructive engagement.

With that said, it is equally worth noting that the attitudes of ASEAN member-states are by no means homogeneous. An overwhelming 83.3% of the surveyed in the Philippines, and a significant 79% in Vietnam, opted for the United States over China – indicative of the enduring antagonism arising from long-standing territorial disputes between China and these two states, no less amplified by recent altercations and skirmishes in the South China Sea, as well as the increasing rhetorical and strategic involvement of the U.S. through military coordination.

Both the seeming, overarching shift towards China, as well as the divergence in attitudes between member states, should not come as a surprise. In 2021, China and ASEAN traded $878.2bn in total, striking a year-on-year increase of 28.1%. This number reached 911.7bn USD in 2023, the fourth consecutive year in which China and ASEAN are one another’s largest trading partners. Structurally, Sino-ASEAN trade has considerably increased over the past few years, not despite but because of the pandemic’s effects in spurring pushes for China+1 diversification from China-based firms. Chinese capital-backed synergistic developments of the advanced manufacturing and renewable sectors across select ASEAN countries, as well as the growing middle class in ASEAN countries with the ability and openness to spend overseas, as tourists, have also amplified the resilience of mutual ties.

Yet such explanations could only constitute a part of the whole story. There is a clear possibility that such attitudinal fluxes are – beyond the result of methodological design – indicative of merely cyclical factors. Author Sebastian Strangio has hypothesised that the ongoing war in Israel has played a key role in causing the hemorrhaging of American support amongst Islamic majority countries, of which policy elite tend to be more skeptical, if not downright resentful, towards Washington’s stance in the ongoing crisis. The seeming “anti-U.S. shift” does not, as Sharon Seah argues, connote a fundamental realignment towards China. 

Admittedly, any causal hypotheses concerning these results are likely to be at least partially conjectural. It is equally plausible to argue that the stance that China has thus far adopted towards numerous geopolitical conflicts – including the war in Gaza, in which it has maintained a position of proactive, relative neutrality – has placed it under a more favourable light to the U.S., which many amongst ASEAN policy elite increasingly view with cynicism. As Richard Heydarian argues, China’s “stated neutrality” has won it diplomatic points across the Muslim world, in ways that could be enduring.

A further element that has thus been omitted in analyses of the poll, concerns the implications of a prospective return of Donald J. Trump. With his capricious, America First, and largely unilateralist foreign policy approach, Trump’s second term could well see Washington actively pressure Southeast Asian states to engage in the unthinkable – to do away with long-standing principles of non-alignment, and to ‘take sides’ in an imposed choice. Prevaricating between reckless neglect and a doting affection for strong-man counterparts, Trump took an approach to ASEAN best described by Toru Takahashi as a “nightmare.”

With two ongoing wars – in Ukraine and Gaza – and incipient political upheaval in accompanying the upcoming elections in November, it would be difficult to fathom how ASEAN states could place their faith in a White House that is only too eager to change its minds. More quantitative surveying should and must be conducted in establishing the attitudes towards Trump amongst the policy elite and public in the region.

Fundamentally, ASEAN states are not ideologically or principally driven towards the U.S. or China. ASEAN leaders are accountable to domestic audiences – whether it be the mass voters, in broadly electoral democratic states such as Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Singapore; or the domestic elite, in Myanmar, Vietnam, and Brunei, or a combination of the civil society and the business or political elite in Cambodia, Laos, and Thailand. So long as the threat perception of China is continually lowered, the skepticism (though not animosity) towards the U.S. continually rises alongside the level of economic interdependence and interactions between China and ASEAN, the winds of change appear to favour a region that is more sympathetic and open to China – for now. Yet this is by no means guaranteed. As evidenced by Cambodia and Lao’s “lurching shifts” over the past three years, even the more ostensibly pro-China member-states in the region’s support for the power is by no means to be taken for granted. Beijing would benefit from the utmost prudence and a pragmatic focus on maintaining peace in the region. 

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