The Asean wind

Asean as a region is throbbing as the 10 nations chart their individual and collective efforts to build its presence, response and influence in the area. The 10 countries are Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. Though there is Asean, there is a marked difference in orientation per country, especially when it comes to relationships with China and the United States.

Note: This column originally appeared in The Manila Times on December 21, 2019.    

What is to be an Asean citizen? Is there an incipient Asean identity already evolving since Asean is already 59 years old? Or are we more distinct nationally than as a regional group? The results of the recent 2020 survey on the state of Southeast Asia is an interesting study of the influencing powers in the region and how the Greater Mekong Delta region differs from the founding members of Asean.

The State of Southeast Asia survey was conducted from Nov. 12 to Dec. 1, 2019. A total of 1,308 respondents from the 10 Association of Southeast Asian Nations member-states participated in the 2020 survey done by the Asean Studies Center at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies-Yusuf Ishak Institute. The survey, conducted online, drew from a specialized pool of respondents from five professional categories: research, business and finance, public sector, civil society, and the media. Using purposive sampling, two criteria were made: “respondents must be Southeast Asian nationals and have adequate knowledge of regional affairs.”

Key sections of the survey covered “regional security outlook, major powers’ regional influence and leadership, geoeconomics and regional integration; geopolitics and regional architecture, China and US’ engagements with the region, perceptions and trust, and soft power.”

Asean as a region is throbbing as the 10 nations chart their individual and collective efforts to build its presence, response and influence in the area. The 10 countries are Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. Though there is Asean, there is a marked difference in orientation per country, especially when it comes to relationships with China and the United States.

The top 3 concerns about Asean remain unchanged from 2019, but the 2020 data shows increased intensity of attention to these concerns: “a) the tangible benefits of Asean are not felt (74 percent); b) Asean is becoming an arena for major power competition and its member states may become proxies for the interest of a major power (73.2 percent); and c) Asean is unable to cope with fluid political and economic developments (68.6 percent). The two other main concerns are: Asean is becoming increasingly disunited at 46.5 percent and Asean is ‘elitist’ and disconnected from the people at 36.8 percent.”

The three most pressing security concerns for the region are ethnic and religious tensions (70.5 percent), economic downturn (68.5 percent) and climate change (66.8 percent). “Domestic political instability is listed as the paramount challenge by respondents in Cambodia (88.5 percent), Myanmar (88.1 percent), Thailand (86.5 percent), Indonesia (83.8 percent), Malaysia (81 percent) and Singapore (67.6 percent). The top security concern for Laos (91.3 percent) and Brunei (83.5 percent) is economic downturn. Respondents from Vietnam (88.2 percent) and the Philippines (82.5 percent) chose increased military tensions arising from flash points such as the South China Sea as their highest security priority.

China remains as the most influential economic power in the region, increasing from 73.3 percent in 2019 to 79.2 percent in 2020. The highest levels of recognition of China’s economic influence are recorded by respondents from Cambodia (88.5 percent), Thailand (86.5 percent) and Brunei (85.5 percent). Asean (8.3 percent) and the US (7.9 percent) are the other two influential economic powers.

The US “continues to lose political and strategic ground in the region with its share decreasing from 30.5 percent in 2019 to 26.7 percent in 2020. The woes are compounded by four additional findings: “China as the most influential political-strategic player almost doubles that of the US (52.2 percent versus 26.7 percent); the gap in China’s favor between perceived US and Chinese influence has widened from 14.7 percent in 2019 to 25.5 percent in 2020; China is seen as the most influential power in 9 out of 10 Asean member states, except the Philippines; and the strong trust deficit towards the US with only 52.7percent welcoming Washington into the region.”

For the Philippines, China remains the most influential economic power at 61.3 percent for two years from 2019 and 2020, while the US stands at 11.7 percent in 2019 and increased to 16.1 percent. When you further drill it down, the Philippines is worried about China’s growing regional economic influence at 82.1 percent and welcomes the growing regional economic influence of Asean (83.3 percent) and the US (63.6 percent).

Japan (27.6 percent) and the European Union (25.5 percent) are viewed as the leaders in championing free trade in the region, while the EU’s strong credentials in upholding international law is viewed as 1 in 3 (33 percent) with highest confidence to maintain the rules-based order and uphold international law. “Respondents from six Asean member states — Thailand (51 percent), Indonesia (47.3 percent), Cambodia (38.5 percent), Malaysia (38.1 percent), Singapore (36.5 percent) and Brunei (28.9 percent) picked the EU as their top choice. The US (24.3 percent) and Japan (20 percent) are the region’s second and third choice respectively. Support for US leadership is strongly felt in Vietnam (45.4 percent) and the Philippines (35.1 percent), while Japan enjoys the highest confidence in Laos (34.8 percent) and Myanmar (33.2 percent).”

The US-China trade war has impact on the trade flows in the region. The region’s top concerns in this trade impasse are the advent of a global economic downturn (41.4 percent), the threat of “decoupling” that will divide the region into two exclusive trade blocs led by China and the US (25.8 percent) and the disruption of the global value chain (22 percent). Eight of the 10 countries had global economic slowdown as the top concern, while the remaining two, Brunei and Singapore, view the threat of decoupling as a bigger concern.

The wind hitting the 10 nations of Asean is a veritable theater play between the panda and the bald eagle. The initial trade deal signed recently is a halt to the trade war. The agreement is a significant turning point in US trade policy since it does not lower tariffs to meet market demand, but leaves a record-level of the same and forces China to buy specific products worth 200 billion Singapore dollars within two years.

An interesting question included in the poll was on the region’s preferred 5G developers. The Korean conglomerate, Samsung (38.5 percent), was the developer of choice. Chinese telecommunication providers are preferred over their US competitors in all Asean member states except the Philippines and Vietnam.

US President Donald Trump and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte came from nowhere and won their races outside the political playbooks. Both leaders have been battling it out with mainstream traditional media, and more and more rely on unfiltered platforms to get their messages out. One is across the Atlantic and one is at a strategic location by the Pacific. The US president is under attack with the impeachment and is set to run for a second term, while the mayor from Davao City is about to ride the sunset in two years’ time. Ironically, though they share certain commonalities, they look at China differently. And, as a diplomat once said, “if you do not know where you are going, every road will get you nowhere.” Despite the Asean wind, Trump and Duterte surely know where they are going. Nowhere for them is inconceivable.

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About the Author
Malou Tiqiua is the Founder/General Manager of PUBLiCUS Asia Inc. A noted political management expert in the Philippines and Asia, she brings over 20 years of professional experience in public, private and the academe combined. Author of the comprehensive book on electoral campaigns in the Philippines, "Campaign Politics", Malou is a graduate of the University of the Philippines with a Political Science degree and a Master of Public Administration. She completed her second master's degree (MA in Political Management) from the Graduate School of Political Management, George Washington University.
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