SINGAPORE -- As the rivalry between the U.S. and China continues to heat up, Southeast Asians are split between the two superpowers, according to a Singaporean think tank, posing a challenge for a region that has sought unity to speed economic growth.
Southeast Asia is not just a roaring economic powerhouse. Its location linking the Pacific and the Indian oceans makes it a strategically vital region for the two rivals.
In the State of Southeast Asia 2020 survey by the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, 73% of 1,308 pundits from member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations said the region is becoming a staging ground for a major power struggle, and that ASEAN members may become proxies for one side or the other. This figure was up from 62% in previous year's poll.
The survey illustrated the U.S.-China standoff and how it is affecting allegiances in the region, with respondents fairly evenly split over which side ASEAN should choose if forced to align with one of the two countries: 54% opted for the U.S. while 46% preferred China.
China was given the nod by the majority of respondents from seven of the 10 ASEAN countries, with 69% from Brunei favoring the country, 58% from Cambodia, 52% from Indonesia, 74% from Laos, 61% from Malaysia, 62% from Myanmar and 52% from Thailand.
The U.S. was the overwhelming choice among respondents from the Philippines and Vietnam at 83% and 86%, respectively, followed by 61% from Singapore. The strong support shown by the Filipino and Vietnamese respondents appears partly due to ongoing maritime squabbles their countries have with Beijing over the South China Sea.
"The take-away from this split response is clear: ASEAN must do all it can to avoid making a binary choice between the U.S. and China, or even putting that choice on the table," said Hoang Thi Ha, researcher at the think tank, in an email interview with the Nikkei Asian Review.
"An ASEAN taking sides would find its space to maneuver contracted and its bargaining power weakened," she added. "It is through ASEAN's [middle-of-the-road approach] with the major powers that its member states exercise their agency, secure their autonomy and promote their national interests."
The latest report comes amid prolonged trade tensions between the U.S. and China. According to the survey, 64% said the trade war would have negative effects for the Southeast Asian economy. In fact, export-dependent countries like Singapore and Thailand already face sluggish economies.
While economic powers like the U.S., European Union and Japan have a solid presence in the region, the survey highlights China's growing footprint, with 79% saying that Beijing is the most influential economic power there, up from last year's 73%.
However, 72% of those who cited Beijing's clout expressed wariness. "China's economic influence is deeply felt but not very well received in the region," the report said.
Notably, the survey revealed that the majority of Southeast Asians are not confident in the Belt and Road Initiative, with 64% of respondents saying they have little or no confidence in China's approach to project loans.
China pledged last year to make BRI more transparent, green and clean. But it appears the region has not bought into the new pledges, and confidence in the initiative remains low, the report pointed out.
The survey was conducted between Nov. 12 and Dec. 1. Of the respondents, 40% were from the public sector, 36% from academia, think tanks and research institutions, and the remaining 24% from business, nongovernmental organizations and the media.