By Peter Valente, Project Assistant, East-West Center in Washington.
Note: this article originally appeared in the East-West Center’s Asia Matters for America/America Matters for Asia initiative on May 8, 2017.
The Institute of Southeast Asian Studies – Yusof Ishak Institute (ISEAS) in Singapore recently conducted a survey on U.S. Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) relations under the Trump administration as part of its programming to celebrate the 50th anniversary of ASEAN’s founding. As a research center dedicated to studying economic, strategic, and development trends in Southeast Asia, ISEAS keeps a close read on public opinion in the region, and how it is shaped by political and social change. ASEAN, which was founded to strengthen the bonds of solidarity and cooperation between the countries of the organization, plays an important role in regional security and boasts close ties with China, Korea, Japan, the United States, and the European Union.
The survey highlights Southeast Asians’ desire for U.S. engagement with the region, but also a lot of concern about the direction that engagement is headed. Under the Trump administration, 72 percent of Southeast Asians believe that the U.S.’ global image has deteriorated, whereas only 15 percent see it as having improved. 70 percent of Southeast Asians indicated that the region is more stable and secure with active U.S. engagement, but only 17 percent expect to see an increase in U.S. engagement under the Trump administration. A more troubling finding is that 51 percent of Southeast Asians agreed that the United States has lost strategic ground to China since Donald Trump took over the presidency, while only a third disagreed. Interestingly, when asked which country they trust to “do the right thing” in contributing to global peace, security, prosperity, and governance, the big winner was Japan, with 62 percent of respondents indicating confidence in Japan’s goodwill, with the U.S., China, and India all garnering between 20 percent and 30 percent confidence from respondents.
Although the survey indicates strong support for U.S. engagement, there is a concern about the direction of current policies. The United States is still viewed as the most powerful player in the region, and potential U.S. engagement is seen very positively. Additionally, two-thirds of Southeast Asians expect that the United States will continue to uphold freedom of navigation in the South China Sea.
ASEAN and the U.S. remain important strategic and economic partners. While the U.S. exported more than $100 billion in goods and services to ASEAN in 2015, it also invested more in the organization than in China, India, Japan, and South Korea combined. The ISEAS survey was conducted from April 10-23, 2017, during which time Vice President Mike Pence traveled to Indonesia, but before the announcement by President Trump that he will attend the ASEAN summit in Manila this November. U.S.-ASEAN relations under Trump are still developing, and ISEAS and Asia Matters for America will continue to conduct comprehensive, unbiased analysis as they do.