(Bloomberg) -- A growing number of Southeast Asians would choose the US over China if the region were forced to pick sides, according to a new poll that shows renewed engagement by the Biden administration is starting to pay off.
A survey of 1,308 Southeast Asians by the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute published Thursday showed America’s popularity reached 61.1%, up from 57.0% last year. That compares to 38.9% of the respondents who chose China, further widening the popularity gap between the major powers.
“The Biden Administration’s standing in this region is far better than its predecessor,” said Sharon Seah, senior fellow and coordinator at the Institute’s Asean Studies Centre. She noted 77% of respondents in 2020 said that the level of US engagement had decreased significantly under the Trump administration. This year almost 40% say that engagement had increased.
US is shoring up its security presence in the region with nations expressing concern over the potential for conflict as China asserts greater military control in the waters around Taiwan and in the South China Sea.
While the perception remains that China is the most influential and strategic power in the region, that figure declined to 41.5% from 54.4% last year. Nearly half of those who believe future relations will improve with their northern neighbor see its influence “as a potential problem,” the study says.
“The worry over China’s exercise of its strategic and economic influence is always present in this region, but the sense is that China, under President Xi has abandoned the strategy of ‘hiding strengths, biding time,’” said Seah. “This makes it harder for the region to handle China’s responses and counter-responses.”
Perceptions of the US meanwhile were not without issue. While it retained its position as the region’s top choice in maintaining a rules-based order and upholding international law at 27.1%, that is a decline from 36.6% last year.
Still, nearly half of respondents were positive over the Washington-led Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity. The US has recognized that winning hearts and minds on the economic initiative has a ways to go, a sentiment reflected in the survey with more than 40% are uncertain about it. It hosted a first gathering of envoys from 13 nations to discuss a deal in September.
“Domestic reasons prevent the US from greater economic engagement such as re-joining the CPTPP or joining the RCEP, but the region can see that it’s trying hard,” Seah said in reference to other trade frameworks.
--With assistance from Kevin Varley.
©2023 Bloomberg L.P.
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