Southeast Asia Prefers China Over US As Ally

A new poll shows that most Southeast Asian nations are more inclined toward aligning with China over the United States. This change marks the first time China has surpassed the U.S. as the region’s favored strategic partner since the question was first posed in the annual survey by the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in 2020.

The latest poll of members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) shows 50.5% favored China and 49.5% chose the U.S. Only 38.9% preferred China in last year’s poll.

The shift is most pronounced in countries like Malaysia, Indonesia, and Laos, with Malaysia reporting the highest pro-China sentiment at 75.1%. These nations have seen substantial benefits from China’s Belt and Road Initiative and robust bilateral trade relationships. China’s development of a long-term role as Malaysia’s top trading partner in the automotive and infrastructure sectors shows the importance of economics to the poll.

In contrast, countries with ongoing territorial disputes with China, such as the Philippines and Vietnam, continue to support the United States strongly. The Philippines leads with 83.3% of respondents favoring the U.S., a sentiment primarily driven by strategic and security considerations, particularly in the contentious South China Sea region.

The survey also points to broader regional concerns, with nearly half of the respondents advocating for ASEAN to bolster its unity and resilience against pressures from the U.S. and China. Members seem to now see the benefit of working with the U.S. and China without clearly taking a side.

The shift toward China is more about America’s missteps in the region than Chinese superiority. Some geopolitical experts believe that increasing favor toward China is connected to lowered engagement with the Biden administration and its State Department, which is struggling to define its mission.

These developments may prompt a reassessment of how the U.S. approaches its foreign policy and engagement in Southeast Asia. Pacific nations are increasingly more interested in robust economic partnerships than military alliances. The changing preferences should be a strong signal to the U.S. that it should adapt its strategies to promote open and fair trade in the region.