A survey of Asean thought-leaders
The State of Southeast Asia: 2021 Survey Report,” 2/10/21 (www.iseas.edu.sg), is the third in an annual series by the ASEAN Studies Centre (ASC), a research unit of the well-regarded ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore. It is the source of last week’s hot news, “PH ranks lowest in gov’t COVID-19 response among Asean countries” (inquirer.net, 2/11/21), but has many other quite important topics, too.
This is not an ordinary opinion poll of a random sample of the population. The participants were 1,032 invited “opinion-makers, policy-makers and thought-leaders”—shortened to “thought-leaders” here. I was invited, but too busy to accept; so I comment with no conflict of personal interest. The responses arrived from 11/18/20 to 1/10/21, i.e., after the outcome of the US presidential election.
The count of 1,032 implies an average of 100 responses per Asean country, ranging from 175 from Vietnam to 26 from Cambodia, with 67 from the Philippines. There is no error margin; this is not a statistical sample.
The numbers are adequate. These are very knowledgeable people: 45 percent from academia (60 percent in PH), 31 percent from government (19 PH), 9 percent from business/finance (1.5 PH), 9 percent from civil society (6 PH), and 5 percent from regional/international organizations (13 PH). PH is the most senior, with two-thirds above age 45, versus only one-third for all Asean.
Asean thought-leaders’ assessment of government response to COVID-19. The media have focused on the PH self-approval rate of 25 percent being the lowest in Asean. I will point out that only two countries have negative NET self-approval rates, namely PH with -29 (approval 25 minus disapproval 54) and Indonesia with -26 (approval 24 minus disapproval 50). All others have positive net approvals.
In assessing which Asean country has provided the best leadership on COVID-19, the top choice is Singapore (33 percent), the second is Vietnam (31), and the last is PH (0.5). Only 6 percent of Filipinos chose PH.
As to which dialogue partner has helped Asean the most on COVID-19, China tops the list with 44 percent, followed by Japan (18), EU (10.3), and the US (9.6). This is the single item where China is favorably rated.
Asean thought-leaders are alarmed by China’s bullying in the South China Sea (SCS). When asked for their top 2 concerns (from a list of 5) over the SCS situation, 62 percent cite China’s militarization and assertive actions, 59 percent cite China’s encroachment on other littoral states’ maritime zones, 46 percent cite biodiversity loss, and 12 percent cite the US’ increased military presence.
When asked for their top 2 choices (from a list of 5) for Asean response to the SCS situation, 85 percent say “take a principled stand that upholds international law, including UNCLOS, and respect the 2016 arbitral tribunal’s ruling,” and 70 percent say “conclude a Code of Conduct (COC) with China as quickly as possible.” Only 20 percent say “cannot do anything because it lacks solidarity,” 13 percent say “discourage non-claimants from getting involved,” and 12 percent say “welcome the presence of other powers in the SCS.”
Asean thought-leaders see China as an unwelcome elephant. Three-fourths say China is the most influential economic power in Southeast Asia; of these, 28 percent welcome it, and 72 percent worry over it.
Half (49 percent) say China is the most influential political and strategic power in Southeast Asia; of these, 11 percent welcome it, and 89 percent worry over it.
As to what country/bloc has their strongest confidence for providing leadership to maintain the rules-based order and uphold international law, the top choice is the EU (32 percent), then the US (29), Asean (17), and Japan (11). In single digits are China (4), New Zealand (3), Australia (2), UK (2), and India (1). The PH choices are EU (39), US (30), Asean (19), Australia (6), and Japan (4); China gets zero.
Asean chooses the US over China. If Asean were forced to align with one of the two, 62 percent in 2021 (up from 54 in 2020) choose the US. Those with confidence in the US as a strategic partner are now 55 percent (up from 35 in 2020). Two-thirds expect US engagement in the Asean region, under the Biden administration, to increase.
The most trusted major power in the region is Japan (67 percent), followed by the EU (51), the US (48), India (20), and China (16). Japan is trusted for being a responsible stakeholder that respects and champions international law.