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Survey: Majority of Southeast Asians favor China over US in regional alignment

The US-China rivalry has reverberated across Asia (Photo by Reuters)

Over half of Southeast Asians would now prefer to align with China and not the US if forced to pick sides, a regional survey has found, reflecting Beijing's growing influence in the region.

According to the State of Southeast Asia 2024 survey released this week and conducted annually by the Singapore-based ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, 50.5% of respondents opted for China and 49.5% preferred the US if the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) had to pick sides.

The survey was compiled between January 3 and February 23 with 1,994 respondents from academia, business, government, civil society and the media.

It is the first time Beijing has edged past Washington since the annual survey started asking the question in 2020, as last year, only 38.9 percent of respondents preferred China, with 61.1 percent favoring the US.

Among the 10 countries of ASEAN, Malaysia showed the strongest alignment with China with 75.1% of respondents, followed by Indonesia and Laos at 73.2% and 70.6%. They all have benefited significantly from China's Belt and Road infrastructure initiative and strong trade relations.

China was also chosen as the most influential economic power in the region by most respondents, with 59.9 percent picking it over the US.

However, half of the respondents also expressed distrust with China, with 45.5% saying that they fear Beijing could use its economic and military power to threaten their country’s interest and sovereignty, while Japan continues to be the most trusted major power in the region, the survey revealed.

Moreover, Vietnam had the highest level of concern among respondents with 87.7 percent, closely followed by Myanmar at 87.6 percent. Thailand and the Philippines also showed worry, with 80.3 percent and 75.8 percent respectively.

The survey revealed the US still holds majority support among The Philippines (83.3%) and Vietnam (79%) respondents, who are inclined to align with the US over China.

The recent survey also revealed that Southeast Asians are hesitant to take sides amidst the growing US-China rivalry. Only 8% believe that ASEAN should pick a side, as staying neutral is seen as unrealistic. Instead, 46.8% suggest that the bloc should focus on strengthening its resilience and unity to withstand pressure from both superpowers.

Also it was found that despite the ongoing geopolitical tensions between the United States and China, the economy remained the top priority for those who participated.

Moreover, the survey revealed that 57.7 percent of respondents in the region identified unemployment and the possibility of a recession as their primary concerns. Following closely behind were worries about climate change at 53.4 percent, and concerns about escalating economic tensions between major powers at 47 percent.

Also Israel’s war in Gaza was named as the most pressing geopolitical concern – with especially high levels of concern in Muslim-majority Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia – followed by tensions in the South China Sea, global scam operations and the Russian-Ukraine war.

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