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Trade war

Southeast Asians feel caught in US-China fight for hegemony

Survey of opinion leaders finds skepticism of Belt and Road runs deep

A ceremony for the first China-ASEAN Maritime Exercise, held in October 2018: Many Southeast Asians say China and the U.S. are on a collision course in the region.

KUALA LUMPUR -- Southeast Asians expect China to use their region as a "test bed" for projecting power, a new survey has found, as Beijing and the U.S. increasingly jostle for influence.

In the "State of Southeast Asia: 2019" study, released on Monday by Singapore's ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, over two-thirds of Southeast Asians polled said China and the U.S. are on a collision course in their region. The think tank carried out the study over the last two months of 2018, surveying more than 1,000 individuals in the policy, research, business, civil society and media communities across the 10 member countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

"China has not been shy about its ambition to regain its rightful place in global affairs, and Southeast Asia will be a test bed for Beijing in this respect," the report says.

A majority of the respondents were concerned about the region becoming an arena for the competition between major powers, which they fear would further polarize regional politics, the report adds. "ASEAN member states will need to muster all their resourcefulness to avoid being a pawn in either China's or the U.S.'s power games."

Seventy percent of the respondents want their governments to be cautious in negotiating projects under China's Belt and Road Initiative, so as to avoid taking on excessive debts to Beijing. The initiative, a centerpiece of Chinese President Xi Jinping's foreign policy, has come under scrutiny in Southeast Asia after Malaysia suspended several Beijing-backed infrastructure projects that were deemed unsustainable.

The reservations were noticeably strong in Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand and even Cambodia, a country perceived to be close to China, with over 70% of respondents in each location voicing concern.

Slightly over half the respondents expressed little or no confidence in either superpower when it comes to contributing to global peace, security, prosperity and governance. Nearly three-quarters singled out China as the main economic influence in the region, reflecting its status as Southeast Asia's top trading partner since 2009, while the U.S. trailed at 7.9%.

The U.S. concept of an Indo-Pacific alliance to contain China received a lukewarm response, with 61.3% of the respondents saying it is "unclear and requires elaboration."

The ongoing trade war between China and the U.S. fueled mistrust of both countries, as 39.7% of the respondents said the dispute had raised uncertainty and 1 in 5 thought it would affect their country negatively due to supply chain disruptions.

Still, 55.4% were optimistic about economic growth in 2019. Respondents in smaller economies such as Laos, Cambodia and Brunei were more bullish, compared with Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand.

The respondents were also asked about other issues affecting the region. Less than one-third were confident that negotiations on the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership will be concluded this year. Discussions on the multilateral free trade deal -- which involves ASEAN and six other countries including China, Japan and India -- have missed several targets for conclusion due to disputes over tariffs and nontariff issues.

Respondents also expressed concern about disunity within ASEAN itself. An overwhelming 72.6% said they did not feel the "tangible benefits" of ASEAN, even as member states meet yearly to affirm economic integration. Malaysia and Singapore, the bloc's two founding members, are currently locked in disputes over territorial and water supply issues.

Two-thirds of the respondents want ASEAN to shed its policy of noninterference in domestic affairs and take "proactive" actions to resolve the humanitarian crisis in Myanmar, which involves over half a million Rohingya refugees.

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