It is difficult to appreciate Southeast Asia’s importance for Asia and the world as a whole.

A region once dismissed as a backwater of countries struggling to escape the legacy of colonialism, better known for its distractions than its dynamism, is now seen through a very different lens. It is the geographic nexus of the Indian and Pacific oceans, the literal heart of any Indo-Pacific concept. It straddles the ocean highways by which the region’s trade — trillions of dollars each year, and over 90 percent of Northeast Asia’s energy supplies — travels.

In 2017, the 10 members of Association of Southeast Asian Nations accounted for 7 percent of global exports, making it the world’s fourth-largest exporting region. Those countries have a combined population of 650 million people with a GDP that is almost $3 trillion; this year, its middle-class population will number about 350 million, with some $300 billion of disposable income to spend.

That growing importance has fostered an acute sensitivity to the views of Southeast Asian politicians and publics, and there is no better reading of their thinking than the annual State of Southeast Asia Survey Report, the 2020 edition of which was published last week by the ASEAN Studies Center at Singapore’s ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute. In a world that is increasingly consumed by U.S.-Chinese competition, that assessment holds out hope that Japan has an increasingly important role to play.

The bottom line of this year’s survey is that ASEAN is deeply divided when it comes to the competition between Washington and Beijing. A majority of respondents (53.6 percent) would choose the United States if forced to pick between the two countries. But a majority of respondents in seven ASEAN member countries — Laos, Brunei, Myanmar, Malaysia, Cambodia, Thailand and Indonesia — would pick China. That leaves large majorities in Vietnam, the Philippines and Singapore preferring the U.S.

A majority (52.2 percent) identify China as the most influential political-strategic actor in the region, nearly twice the U.S. figure (26.7 percent), and an increase from 45 percent in the last poll. Nearly 80 percent believe China is the most influential economic power, an increase from 73 percent in last year’s survey. Only 8 percent of respondents picked the U.S. as the leading economic power, no change from the last assessment.

But China’s rising influence has not been well received. Nearly 72 percent of respondents were “worried about its growing regional influence,” and among those who believe that China is the most important strategic actor that number rises to 85.4 percent. Over 60 percent have “little” or “no confidence” that China will contribute to global peace, security, prosperity or governance, an increase from 52 percent in the 2019 report.

There are several reasons for the rising concern, but more than 53 percent said they believed that China’s military and economic power “could be used to threaten my country’s interest and sovereignty.” A smaller but still significant number (38.2 percent) consider China to be “a revisionist power and intends to turn Southeast Asia into its sphere of influence.” Southeast Asians do not appear to take China’s rise and expanding influence as a given; it is creating considerable friction and aggravation.

That may provide an opening for the U.S., but most of the survey results offer little relief for Washington. Over 47 percent of respondents have “little” or “no confidence” in the U.S. as a strategic partner and provider of regional security, an alarming increase from the 34.6 percent who harbored such thoughts a year ago. (Only 30.3 percent had “some confidence”; the remainder had no comment.) That thinking is also reflected in the finding that even among those who believe the U.S. is the most influential actor in the region, only a little more than half (52.7 percent) “welcome Washington in the region.”

Much of the blame is laid at the feet of the current U.S. administration, with 60.3 percent indicating that the decline in U.S. reliability can be reversed with a change of U.S. leadership. In other words, rising Chinese influence in Southeast Asia could be attributable as much to U.S. action (or inaction) as anything Beijing is doing.

One beneficiary of the U.S. slide is Japan. When asked who they would look to as their country’s preferred strategic partner in the event of U.S. decline, the largest number (31.7 percent) picked Japan; second was the European Union (20.5 percent) which was followed closely by China (20.3 percent).

Even more significant, 61.2 percent said they were “confident” or “very confident” that Japan would do the right thing when it comes to providing global public goods. The most important reason for that confidence (51 percent) is a belief that “Japan is a responsible stakeholder that respects and champions international law.” The Abe administration’s insistence on the value of a rules-based order, the heart of its Free and Open Indo-Pacific vision, has sunk in.

The high evaluation of Japan is the product of more than a single message regularly repeated. Japan is a far bigger presence in the region than it is given credit. A recent survey of regional infrastructure projects concluded that the total of Japan-based projects was nearly 1.5 times larger than that of China, $367 billion to $255 billion. Earlier this month, Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi wrapped up his inaugural visit to the region by repeating Tokyo’s intention to mobilize another $3 billion between 2020 and 2022, nearly half of which would come from the Japan International Cooperation Agency.

The prevailing narrative, however, is of a Chinese economic juggernaut. This is a failure of strategic messaging and must be fixed.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has gotten considerable credit for his attention to Southeast Asia. During his first year in office, he visited all 10 ASEAN member states and he closed out that year with a commemorative summit with ASEAN leaders in December 2013. He has expanded security cooperation by helping to build capacity among regional navies and coast guards, and revising official development assistance regulations to permit the use of those funds to that end.

In 2018, Japan initiated an annual Maritime Self-Defense Force Indo-Southeast Asia Deployment, a two-month deployment by a helicopter carrier along with destroyers and a submarine.

In truth, Japan has for decades engaged the region, first in the 1970s to overcome its brutal Pacific War legacy, and then in the ’80s and ’90s to reduce the costs of its international manufacturing companies. While successful, there were complaints about a high-handed approach that inhibited technology transfer and imposed a glass ceiling for local hires. This reflected a belief that Southeast Asia would be led by Japan, a belief that has been eroded by China’s rise, Southeast Asia’s own development and Japan’s economic travails.

If Japan is to seize the opportunities evident in the results of the new ISEAS survey, it must change its thinking and embrace Southeast Asia as a genuine partner in constructing a new Asian order.

Brad Glosserman is deputy director of and visiting professor at the Center for Rule-Making Strategies at Tama University as well as senior adviser (nonresident) at Pacific Forum. He is the author of “Peak Japan: The End of Great Ambitions.”

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