Survey Reflects Southeast Asian Perception of US Engagement Under The New Administration

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by Peter Valente
The new survey reflects Southeast Asian feelings about foreign engagement in the region. [Image: ISEAS]

The Institute of Southeast Asian Studies – Yusof Ishak Institute (ISEAS) in Singapore recently conducted a survey on US- Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) relations under the Trump administration as part of its programming to celebrate the 50th anniversary of ASEAN’s founding. As a research center dedicated to studying economic, strategic, and development trends in Southeast Asia, ISEAS keeps a close read on public opinion in the region, and how it is shaped by political and social change.  ASEAN, which was founded to strengthen the bonds of solidarity and cooperation between the countries of the organization, plays an important role in regional security and boasts close ties with China, Korea, Japan, the United States, and the European Union.

The survey highlights Southeast Asians’ desire for US engagement with the region, but also a lot of concern about the direction that engagement is headed. Under the Trump administration, 72% of Southeast Asians believe that the US’ global image has deteriorated, whereas only 15% see it as having improved. 70% of Southeast Asians indicated that the region is more stable and secure with active US engagement, but only 17% expect to see an increase in US engagement under the Trump administration. A more troubling finding is that 51% of Southeast Asians agreed that the United States has lost strategic ground to China since Donald Trump took over the presidency, while only a third disagreed. Interestingly, when asked which country they trust to “do the right thing” in contributing to global peace, security, prosperity, and governance, the big winner was Japan, with 62% of respondents indicating confidence in Japan’s goodwill, with the US, China, and India all garnering between 20% and 30% confidence from respondents.

Although the survey indicates strong support for US engagement, there is a concern about the direction of current policies. The United States is still viewed as the most powerful player in the region, and potential US engagement is seen very positively. Additionally, two thirds of Southeast Asians expect that the United States will continue to uphold freedom of navigation in the South China Sea.

ASEAN and the US remain important strategic and economic partners. While the US exported more than $100 billion in goods and services to ASEAN in 2015, it also invested more in the organization than in China, India, Japan, and South Korea combined. The ISEAS survey was conducted from April 10-23, 2017, during which time Vice president Mike Pence traveled to Indonesia, but before the announcement by President Trump that he will attend the ASEAN summit in Manila this November. US-ASEAN relations under Trump are still developing, and ISEAS and Asia Matters for America will continue to conduct comprehensive, unbiased analysis as they do.