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China influence in Southeast Asia is growing — and the U.S. has some catching up to do

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National flags of the U.S. and China fly outside a company building in the China (Shanghai) Pilot Free Trade Zone in Shanghai, China on Oct. 22, 2013.

Tomohiro Ohsumi | Bloomberg | Getty Images

The U.S. is playing catch-up to China’s growing political and economic influence in Southeast Asia, and that gap is expected to grow wider in the next decade, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The report by the Washington-based think tank was based on a survey conducted in November and December last year — before the coronavirus, which first emerged in China, spread globally.

The survey targeted non-governmental experts across Southeast Asia, and those in international relations. In total, 188 such experts from Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and the Philippines responded to the survey.

“The results of this survey paint a picture of clearly ascendant Chinese influence in Southeast Asia, complex and diverging views of China, and deep concerns over U.S.-China strategic competition and its impact on the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN),” read the CSIS report, which was published on Wednesday.

The report comes as tensions between Washington and Beijing escalate further. The two economic giants have sparred over a variety of issues that include China’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak and its tightening grip over Hong Kong, a semi-autonomous Chinese territory which has a special trading relationship with the U.S. 

Writers of the report said the coronavirus pandemic could have altered dynamics in Southeast Asia and how respondents think of issues covered in the survey. Still, the report provides a base for comparison to assess trends in the region after the pandemic, said the writers.

Here are several findings from the survey:

  • Around 94.5% of respondents included China as one of the three countries with the most political power and influence in Southeast Asia today, while 92% chose the U.S. as one of their options;
  • Similarly, 94.5% included China as one of the three countries which will hold the most political power and influence in the region 10 years from now. That’s compared to 77% which selected the U.S.;
  • Around 96% ranked China as one of the three countries with the most economic power and influence in the region 10 years from now, versus 56.7% that selected the U.S.;
  • Respondents from Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia were the most bullish about China’s future political power and influence;
  • Meanwhile, 98% of respondents named China as one of the three countries that hold the most economic power and influence in Southeast Asia today, while 70.6% included the U.S.

Despite China’s edge over the U.S. in political and economic influence in Southeast Asia, respondents were split in their perception of Beijing. A slight majority of 53% considered China’s role in the region as “very or somewhat beneficial,” compared with 46% who thought it’s “somewhat or very detrimental.”

Singapore led the way with the highest proportion of respondents viewing China favorably, followed by Malaysia. Notably, respondents from Vietnam and the Philippines — two countries with “the most significant maritime territorial disputes with China” — were the most negative about Beijing’s role in Southeast Asia, according to the report.

Southeast Asia’s strategic importance

The CSIS findings echoed that of other recent surveys.

One such survey was published earlier this year by Singaporean think tank ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, which also found China to be the most influential economic and political power in the region.

The results of this survey paint a picture of clearly ascendant Chinese influence in Southeast Asia …

Center for Strategic and International Studies

But a majority of respondents in the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute survey — who are from both public and private sectors — were worried about China’s expanding influence in the region. At the same time, most respondents also observed that U.S. engagement with Southeast Asia has declined under U.S. President Donald Trump.

Southeast Asia is home to more than 650 million people and some of the world’s fastest-growing economies. Its proximity to the South China Sea — a vital commercial shipping route where trillions of dollars of the world’s trade passes through — adds to the region’s strategic importance.      

The U.S. has for many years been an important presence in the region through both security and economic engagements. But since Trump took office in 2017, the U.S. withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership — a mega trade pact that included several Southeast Asian countries — and top American government officials have been notably absent at a few important regional summits.

That seeming lack of interest on the part of the U.S. coincided with China’s more aggressive push in Southeast Asia through programs including infrastructure investments under the Belt and Road Initiative.

In addition to China, other countries such as Japan, Indonesia and India were also seen as emerging powers competing for influence in Southeast Asia, according to the CSIS survey.

“The survey made clear that the region believes the relative balance of political power is changing, with a relative decline in U.S. influence,” said the report.

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