Southeast Asia—It’s All in the Numbers

The ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute recently released its The State of Southeast Asia: 2019 Survey Report. The survey asked 1,008 respondents from academia, government, international organizations, think tanks, civil society organizations, the media, and the business community from the 10 states that form the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) for their views on strategic issues in the region. This was the first time this set of questions has been used by the Institute.

Given the openly acknowledged strategic competition between the United States and China, the results of the survey should concern U.S. policymakers. 59.1 percent of respondents said U.S. power and influence had either deteriorated or deteriorated substantially, while 68.1 percent were unsure of or had little to no confidence in the United States as a strategic partner and provider of regional security. 73.3 percent said China had the most influence economically over Southeast Asia, while only 7.9 percent selected the United States. 45.2 percent said China had the most influence politically and strategically over the region compared to 30.5 percent who said the United States.

These results should worry the United States for two interrelated reasons. First, respondents clearly saw China as more influential than the United States. Losing influence in Southeast Asia would be one thing. Losing influence to one’s strategic rival is another.

Second, Southeast Asia is strategically important. In the decades since the fall of Saigon, Washington has assumed the region to be largely strategically benign. This is no longer the case. U.S. policy recognizes this, as have President Trump, Vice President Pence, and others when they have spoken of ASEAN’s centrality to the U.S. vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific. Its economic weight, population size, convening power and key geographic features—the straits of Malacca, the Mekong, and access to the South China Sea, for instance—are all of sufficient significance that instability or conflict in the region would have far-reaching implications. Furthermore, Southeast Asian states—though not all liberal states themselves—are generally supporters of and adherents to international rules and norms.

The survey responses cannot be explained by changes in the basic settings of U.S. Southeast Asia policy—there has not been a substantial shift between the previous and current administrations. President Barack Obama’s 2015 National Security Strategy (NSS) outlined U.S. commitment to ASEAN “to reinforce shared rules and norms, forge collective responses to shared challenges, and help ensure peaceful resolution of disputes,” and to deepen bilateral partnerships with the states of Southeast Asia. President Trump’s 2017 NSS was similar in tone, stating that ASEAN and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) remained “centerpieces of the Indo-Pacific’s regional architecture and platforms for promoting an order based on freedom” and that Southeast Asian states were important partners for the United States.

The results have more to do with U.S. narrative and visibility in the region. In terms of narrative, the United States has not succeeded in having the right person deliver the right message to Southeast Asia. For instance, and perhaps most relevantly given the survey was conducted around the same time, Vice President Mike Pence said many of the right things in Singapore in November 2018 at the East Asia Summit and U.S.-ASEAN Summit —that the U.S. commitment to the Indo-Pacific was “steadfast and enduring,” that ASEAN is an “indispensable and irreplaceable strategic partner,” and it sits at the center of the United States’ Indo-Pacific strategy. But, at a forum for leaders, the fact that it was Vice President Pence that delivered the U.S. message told Southeast Asians something different—that their region is not worth the President’s time or attention.

In terms of U.S. visibility in the region, China’s Belt and Road Initiative has undoubtedly overshadowed any U.S. contribution in the last year. Both in its scale and the type of investment it represents, the Belt and Road Initiative lends itself to being noticed—big construction projects, large amounts of Chinese workers and a public debate, which, though not entirely positive for China, has captured the region’s attention.

The survey results are not all bad news for U.S. Southeast Asia policy, however. In fact, the results are instructive as to how the United States might work with its allies and partners to lift its visibility, strengthen its strategic position, and help the region develop and prosper.

Japan polled extremely well in the survey, beating the European Union, the United States, India, and China to rank as the most trusted major power. 65.9% of respondents said they were either confident or very confident that Japan would do the right thing. This is most likely due to Japan’s large number of long-running and well-regarded development and investment programs in Southeast Asia and the political attention and consideration Japan gives to Southeast Asian states. In 2017, Japan was ASEAN’s second largest external source of foreign direct investment ($13.2 billion that year). It contributes to regional development through programs such as the “Expanded Partnership for Quality Infrastructure” and is taking forward more than 150 projects with the Mekong-Japan group, which include infrastructure development, information technology support, legal sector development, and police and customs management.

The United States should pay attention to Japan’s activities in the region and seek to do more in partnership with it. The United States could help deliver new phases or extensions of Japan’s existing programs, including by using bilateral arrangements or the memorandum of understanding signed by the Japan Bank for International Cooperation (JBIC) and the U.S. Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC) and Australia’s Export Finance and Insurance Corporation (Efic) in November 2018 as a basis for cooperation. A particular focus could be the Mekong region, where, despite Japan’s extensive investments, China is meeting the growing demand for infrastructure projects.

More generally, the United States’ allies and partners—Australia, Japan, South Korea, India, and New Zealand—all have strong, deep, and long-standing relationships with ASEAN. The strategic partnerships are more than symbolic—they give leaders and senior government officials opportunities to meet regularly to discuss regional issues and mean they have established work programs. These partnerships could be a force multiplier for the United States in Southeast Asia, if, for instance, the United States coordinated engagement on initiatives such as Smart Cities or maritime capacity building. This would save time and effort and prevent duplication, with each partner able to contribute a niche set of skills.

Other results in the survey point to soft power opportunities for the United States and its partners. The United States ranks the highest as the country respondents would prefer to go to should they be offered a scholarship, ahead of the European Union, Australia, and Japan. A greater number of scholarships, then, seems an obvious and easy win, and one that will pay dividends into the future.

91.3 percent of respondents said English was the most useful and beneficial language for their work or professional development, pointing to another soft power opportunity. Investing in language institutes or funding for a multi-country volunteer program modeled on the Peace Corps to deliver language training would capitalize on this want for English-language skills in Southeast Asia.

Of course, all this being said as to what the United States could do, it is true leaders in Southeast Asia can also step up. If they are worried about U.S. disengagement from the region and want otherwise, then they should tell the United States what they are interested in and how it could usefully contribute. John Lee, the former senior adviser to Australian foreign minister Julie Bishop, has made similar arguments, as has Marty Natalegawa, the former Indonesian foreign minister.

For United States policymakers, the region’s strategic weight is such that they should at least test how much truth there is to the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute survey results. Even if the results are not indicative of a trend or a view outside of the 1,008 respondents, such low faith in the United States and poor perceptions of its influence in what the United States acknowledges to be the heart of the Indo-Pacific are worth giving some attention to.

Rohana Prince is the current Thawley Fellow with the Alliances and American Leadership Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. and the Lowy Institute.

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Rohana Prince