Pandemic, economy top concerns; climate change places third . . .
On Wednesday, Singapore-based think-tank, the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, published its annual State of Southeast Asia survey report on the views and perceptions of policymakers, researchers, businesspeople, journalists, and civil society representatives in Southeast Asia. This year’s survey shows a region still preoccupied with the pandemic and “unemployment and economic recession,” also the top two concerns last year. However, the region feels more optimistic about the prospect of economic recovery as borders gradually re-open. The third-biggest concern was “climate change and more intense and frequent weather events,” especially among respondents from the Philippines and Vietnam. Human rights ranked second to last.
Myanmar crisis puts ASEAN to the test . . .
While almost three-quarters of respondents believe that ASEAN is slow and ineffective, individual countries show a diversity of perspectives. This is especially the case with findings on Myanmar, where respondents overwhelmingly disapproved of ASEAN’s response to the post-coup crisis, while those from Brunei and Indonesia expressed higher approval of the response due to their countries’ leading role in pushing for a diplomatic resolution. Although aware of the body’s institutional weaknesses, many still recognized ASEAN’s efforts on Myanmar, such as its commitment to the five-point consensus calling for the cessation of violence in the embattled country. It remains to be seen how Cambodia, the current ASEAN chair, will tackle regional challenges, with nearly 65 per cent of Cambodian respondents identifying increasing disunity as their top concern for the bloc.
U.S. gains ground, ties with China complex . . .
Although China continues to be regarded as the most influential economic and political-strategic power in Southeast Asia, Japan remains the most trusted major power, followed closely by the U.S. and the EU. Although the survey finds that Southeast Asians would rather align with the U.S. over China, most prefer to avoid making such a choice. This is consistent with ASEAN’s position vis-à-vis the Indo-Pacific, which stresses the body’s centrality and non-alignment. Still, there is hope among respondents that the U.S. will do more in terms of economic engagement, with 30 per cent putting the U.S. in the top position for leadership in global free trade. However, while Washington has made the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) a key tenet of its regional strategy, this falls short of expectations of a free trade agreement.