What latest Southeast Asia Survey tells us about the region - Hindustan Times
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What latest Southeast Asia Survey tells us about the region

ByRahul Mishra
Apr 22, 2024 07:25 PM IST

This article is authored by Rahul Mishra.

Ever since its release in early April, The State of Southeast Asia 2024 Survey Report, published by the ASEAN Studies Centre at ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute, Singapore, is in news for many reasons – the most striking of which is greater support to China in comparison with the United States (US). Despite their good work, the European Union (US) and India have also (shockingly) suffered a decline in popularity.

World leaders including Prime Minister Narendra Modi, President of Philipinnes Ferdinand Romualdez Marcos Jr, Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, Thailand's Permanent Secretary of Ministry of Foreign Affairs Sarun Charoensuwan, Vietnam's Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh, and others pose for a photograph during the 20th ASEAN-India Summit as part of the 43rd ASEAN Summit in Jakarta.(Reuters) PREMIUM
World leaders including Prime Minister Narendra Modi, President of Philipinnes Ferdinand Romualdez Marcos Jr, Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, Thailand's Permanent Secretary of Ministry of Foreign Affairs Sarun Charoensuwan, Vietnam's Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh, and others pose for a photograph during the 20th ASEAN-India Summit as part of the 43rd ASEAN Summit in Jakarta.(Reuters)

The survey for this year was carried out from January 3, 2024, to February 23, 2024, a span of seven weeks. It is based on responses from 1,994 participants in total, coming from ten Southeast Asian nations. Like all surveys, the State of Southeast Asia survey is also not without flaws. Still it offers good insights into the region as it offers a broad overview of Southeast Asian perspectives on important political-strategic, economic, soft power, and hard power issues that matter to the ten Southeast Asian countries, and Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which serves as their representative body.

Additionally, it presents Southeast Asian perspectives on important international issues and geopolitical events in the region, as well as the ways in which ASEAN and its dialogue partners have interacted with the region over the past year. Over the course of six sections, the poll provides an overview of the prevalent viewpoints among those who can inform or influence policy regarding regional issues. It includes respondent profiles broken out by age, education, affiliation, and nationality.

Additionally, it examines the regional future and offers opinions on global happenings from the previous year. It also looks at the leadership and geographical influence of the major and middle powers, and ASEAN's alternatives amid the evolving geopolitical landscape of the region. It also assesses how trusting Southeast Asians are of the US, China, Japan, EU, and India, as responsible major stakeholders in the region. Lastly, it evaluates the degree of soft power in the area by looking at decisions made about travel and job relocation choices.

The study offers several key insights on the region. The most prominent of which are:

First, the largest challenges still facing Southeast Asia are unemployment and the economic downturn. 57.7% of those surveyed said it was the largest obstacle. This is not shocking given Malaysia's soaring inflation rate. The economies of Singapore, Thailand, and Indonesia have grown slowly lately. The decline in ASEAN exports in recent months can be attributed to a number of factors, including the ongoing crisis between Russia and Ukraine, attempts at economic de-hyphenation between China and the US, and an impending recession in the EU region. Economic recession in Japan might further aggravate the situation in coming months.

This is also indicated by the poll, where 47.0% of participants are concerned about growing economic hostilities between superpowers. It is obvious that no nation can succeed if its main economic partners continue to be pulled down by economic conflicts.

Southeast Asian countries are among the most vulnerable bunch when it comes to adverse impact of climate change and extreme weather conditions. This is well reflected in the survey with 53.4% respondents considering these challenges as the most pressing.

As far as the Israel-Hamas conflict and Israel-Palestine dispute is concerned, Southeast Asia is perhaps the most affected politically and emotionally, outside of West Asia. The Israel-Hamas conflict has had such an impact that there have been anti-Israel public protests in Malaysia and Indonesia. The Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim recently sent his sympathies to Ismail Haniyeh, the chairman of Hamas, who lost his three sons and four grandchildren in an attack by Israel. Earlier, both Anwar and the Indonesian President Joko Widodo spoke at public forums in support of Palestine, condemning Israel.

It is intriguing, however, that the South China Sea dispute, which is arguably the hottest flashpoint in the region, involving China and four ASEAN members in mutually overlapping territorial claims, got a meagre 39.9% attention. China’s repeated incursions in the Philippine, Malaysian, and Vietnamese territorial waters, and intrusions in the Indonesian Exclusive Economic Zone off Natuna Islands, has been alarming. China’s gray zone tactics, island reclamation and island militarisation activities along with the increasing use of maritime militia have not gone unnoticed in capitals across the region. The recent US-Japan-Philippines Summit in Washington DC is aimed at countering China’s aggressive postures, and both the US and Japan seem more committed than ever to protect Philippine territorial sovereignty.

These three countries along with Australia also recently conducted a freedom of navigation exercise in the West Philippine Sea in solidarity with the Philippines and to send a clear signal to China, which was received with anger in Beijing. With growing military escalation from both the sides, the chances of an accidental war have only grown, which is a frightening scenario. Growing tensions between China and the US over Taiwan issue is equally alarming.

It is interesting to note that China continues to be seen as the most influential economic (59.5%) and political-strategic (43.9%) power in the region, while the political and strategic influence of the US is only 25.8%.

This is not to say that the Russia-Ukraine conflict (39.4 %) and global scam operations (39.4 %) are not significant challenges. A series of scams, both online and in-person, emanating from Cambodia have posed serious challenges to the region. According to a United Nations report published in August 2023, “at least 120,000 people in Myanmar, and another 100,000 in Cambodia, were forced into operating cyber-fraud schemes.” The Indian government has also rescued several hundred Indians in Cambodia who were forced to run online scams. As per the reports, these people were promised jobs but "forced to undertake illegal cyber work”.

Given the wide range of difficulties Southeast Asia faces, it could have been more appropriate to divide the aforementioned difficulties into "challenges within the region" and "challenges emanating from outside the region." That would have also allowed the responders to pay greater attention to the Myanmar conundrum. It is disheartening to learn that although being addressed separately, the ongoing violent conflicts in Myanmar, which have resulted in thousands of forced migrants and hundreds of civilian deaths, is not included in this list.

A significant finding is the perception of ASEAN's diminishing relevance in addressing regional challenges. About 77.0% of respondents view ASEAN as becoming increasingly ineffective, raising questions about its ability to navigate intra-regional and external pressures.

The survey underscores the intricate terrain of Southeast Asian viewpoints, highlighting difficulties related to economics, geopolitics, and ASEAN’s institutional challenges while navigating a plethora of traditional and non-traditional security challenges. In order to handle the various issues influencing Southeast Asia's course, ASEAN as well as its members and dialogue partners must pay closer attention to regional issues and focus on more effective collaborative approaches. The heavy lifting, of course, must be done by ASEAN itself.

This article is authored by Rahul Mishra, senior research fellow, German-Southeast Asian Center of Excellence for Public Policy and Good Governance, Thammasat University, Thailand, and associate professor, Centre for Indo-Pacific Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

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