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Proof the US is losing hearts and minds in Southeast Asia

Less than a quarter of those surveyed thought that the US-China relations would be friendly, cooperative or cordial in the next 12 months

School children in Laos (Photo: Flickr/Asian Development Bank)
School children in Laos (Photo: Flickr/Asian Development Bank)

Trump sniping has become a sport with no marksmanship. Facile Trump click-bait circulates freely on social media fulfilling a confirmation bias in its audience and perpetuating a parasitic cycle of groupthink that is feeding poor analysis and driving solutions to complex problems deeper underground. Far too often, these are ad hominem with no relevant fact base; and where there’s no evidence-base, there’s often no workable solutions. Such has been the case for much recent drubbing of Trump’s policies in Asia. Now a survey clearly shows the administration must do more. Washington should listen.

The ISEAS survey* released this week showed a steep decline in confidence in the US as a committed actor to the region (see ISEAS’ analysis here). It augurs a wider collapse of faith in the US across the region.

In short, there are four key takeaways:

  • The Trump administration is losing ground in Southeast Asia, with confidence among partners and allies wavering. A majority saying the US is 'undependable'
  • Some 74% of respondents thought that the most influential country or regional organisation in Southeast Asia today was China, only 3.5% cited the US. The same number believed this would remain the same over the next ten years.
  • Two-thirds of respondents viewed the US less favourably than four months ago.
  • Two-thirds continue to believe that an active US presence in Southeast Asia creates a more stable and secure region.

This year marks the 40th anniversary of US-ASEAN relations, however, in their current state few would see cause for celebration. Southeast Asia is feeling abandoned by the new administration. A majority (56%) believed that US’ engagement in Southeast Asia would decrease or substantially decrease under Trump. Some 54% said that the US as an ally/partner was undependable or highly undependable compared to four months ago – only 3% said it was very dependable.

How do you rate the US as an ally/partner today compared to four months ago?

Source: How do Southeast Asians view the Trump Administration? ISEAS- Yusof Ishak Institute, ASEAN Studies Centre, May 2017

Given these sentiments, it is perhaps not surprising that respondents believe the image of the US has suffered under the new administration. Some 46% said that the US’ global image today has 'deteriorated' compared to four months ago, a further 25% said it had 'deteriorated immensely'.

Confidence remained in some areas however with 68% of respondents believing that the US will uphold freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. Indeed, the survey suggested the region strongly believes in US engagement in the Southeast Asia. Fully 70% believed that the region was more stable and secure with an active US presence. But 52% believed the administration was not interested or thought the region was irrelevant.

In recent months, some commentators have suggested that any retreat of the US from Asia could allow Southeast Asia to secure itself. Respondents weren't convinced this could actually be achieved, instead they were split on the question that ASEAN could be induced in this way to strengthen intra-regional cooperation and unity. 

Perhaps most worryingly, less than a quarter (22%) thought that the US-China relations would be friendly, cooperative or cordial in the next 12 months. Those concerns, from well-placed local experts, speak to a palpable fear of increased disputes in the region.

One potential confounder to these findings was the vice president’s announcement on the 20 April, toward the end of the survey period, that Trump would attend the ASEAN, APEC and East Asia Summit in November. A much welcomed confirmation in the region. Indeed, that Mike Pence was touring the region during the survey period may have also provided a spike in confidence in US engagement itself. As such these numbers could in reality, be worse. The Pence trip was subsequently cut short.

Building stronger intra-ASEAN security and robust economic relationships cannot be achieved in a power vacuum, it is hard enough in a period of strategic upheaval. The US should stay the course, reinforce relationships, and support the building of intra-ASEAN and regional security and economic structures. Aside form the obvious regional security concerns, if it doesn’t, the US risks missing out on significant economic opportunity.

Over the last decade the ASEAN economy has continued a steady annual real growth rate of around 5%. ASEAN GDP is expected to reach $US4.7 trillion in 2020, with the economy to grow at 7% per year. Of the bloc’s 625 million citizens, more than half are under 30 years old, they are young and increasingly tech savvy consumers. That’s a huge and hungry market for the US to turn its back on.

Unless the Trump administration makes an effort soon, Southeast Asian governments and their expanding markets may begin falling out of the sphere of influence of the US and US companies. A lack of competition will hurt growth and the robustness of Southeast Asian government and society. Weaker states make for weaker allies. They also make for weaker and less secure places to do business. Few would benefit.

Washington can’t wait until November to patch up nose-diving confidence in its commitment to Southeast Asia. The survey demonstrates the urgency of a problem the new administration needs to quickly and loudly arrest. If it doesn’t things could get very bump, very fast.

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