Survey data shows that Southeast Asia’s trust in the United States has noticeably increased since President Joe Biden was elected, experts said at a Tuesday event.
ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute surveys conducted since 2019 — which feature over 1,000 Southeast Asian respondents — show this trend of increased trust, according to lead researcher Hoang Thi Ha. Various statistics from the survey demonstrate this pattern, such as the number of respondents who vocalized “confidence in the U.S. as a strategic partner” leaping from 34.9% in 2020 to 55.4% this year. Furthermore, in the 2020 survey, ISEAS asked respondents if “their confidence in Washington as a strategic partner and regional security provider will improve with a change in U.S. leadership,” to which 60.3% of the survey’s participants responded yes.
Ultimately, Southeast Asia is a very diverse region, with varied beliefs and principles. Brookings Center senior fellow Joseph Chinyong Liow emphasized this diversity by using Myanmar, a country which recently suffered a military coup for the fourth time in 60 years, as an example.
“I think the very unfortunate situation in Myanmar just brings home the point about how difficult it is for Southeast Asia to stick to a common shared position on any given issue,” Liow said.
This diversity in beliefs was further exemplified in Ha’s survey. For example, Vietnamese respondents broke from regional patterns and showed record high approval for the United States during the Trump administration. Ha attributed this to the Vietnamese perception of the former president as “a tough guy who stands up to China” — a country against which many Vietnamese respondents felt strongly.
The wide range of ideologies in Southeast Asia leads Ha to hope the Biden administration’s foreign policy approach to Southeast Asia “will not be a wholesale denunciation of Trump’s.” Ha said that Trump’s lax stance on human rights issues allowed for friendlier relations with authoritarian-leaning countries of the region such as Thailand and the Philippines.
While Liow said he was optimistic that Southeast Asian countries would enjoy better relations with the U.S., he shared concerns over the Biden administration’s push for “value-based diplomacy” — that is, diplomacy that champions democracy and human rights above all else.
“I don’t think that many Southeast Asian states share the American view about how definitive and how universal those values are,” Liow said.
Vietnam, for example, is a communist one-party authoritarian state. Thailand, though a democracy, is said by the Human Rights Watch (HRW) to have “faced a serious human rights crisis in 2020.” Factors of this crisis, according to the HRW, include Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha’s dissolution of a rival party — the Future Forward Party — excessive lockdowns, violent dispersal of protestors and the persecution of dissidents.
Additionally, Liow said that U.S.-Southeast Asia relations could be strained as the U.S. focuses on critical domestic issues. As a result, the United States may not be able to devote the time, energy and resources that, Liow said, “American friends and allies wish would be spent on their part of the world.”
“Given the polarization, pandemic and economic consequences of that, the United States is trying to navigate much rougher domestic waters than it has had to for a while,” Liow said.
When asked why Americans should care about Southeast Asia’s problems, Liow said there is a great correlation between an increase in the United States’ popularity in the region and a decrease in China’s. A basis for this point comes directly from the ISEAS surveys, which according to Ha asked respondents to “make a binary choice between the U.S. and China.” In the 2021 survey, 61.5% of the respondents chose the U.S. as opposed to the 53.6% that did in 2020. In contrast, the percentage of respondents that chose China “has gone down significantly” this year in comparison to last year, Ha said.
The Biden administration’s current position on China could raise hesitancy in Southeast Asia, according to Liow. He explained that the current administration has called for Southeast Asian countries to join the United States in collective action against China, to which these nations and their governments are opposed.
“ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) is going to be very careful in how it responds to this call for any sort of unified position to push back on China,” Liow said.
Freeman Spogli Institute senior fellow emeritus Donald Emmerson shared his belief in the importance of an international United States presence.
“The United States has reason to care for global conduct that violates the rules of an order that has been maintained for decades and is now being challenged to some significant extent by revisionist China,” Emmerson said.