Donald Trump

Trump ‘dents US reputation’ in Southeast Asia, leaves door open for China

Survey finds United States has lost strategic ground to China since US President Donald Trump took office

PUBLISHED : Monday, 08 May, 2017, 8:03am
UPDATED : Monday, 08 May, 2017, 8:03am

Washington’s reputation has taken a hit from the new US ­administration’s lack of engagement with its Asian allies, opening the door for Beijing to fill a strategic vacuum in Southeast Asia, ­according to a new survey.

More than half of the 318 Southeast Asian respondents to the survey, by Singapore’s Iseas-Yusof Ishak Institute, said the United States had lost strategic ground to China since US President Donald Trump took office, and China had emerged as the ­region’s most influential country.

Diplomatic observers said the survey results reflected falling confidence and widespread concerns among China’s Southeast Asian neighbours over the US’ ­deliberate, gradual withdrawal from the region amid China’s ­increasing assertiveness.

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The survey results were released last week as US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson belatedly renewed US security commitments to Southeast Asian nations during a meeting with Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) foreign ministers in Washington.

Over 70 per cent of the respondents – people in government, academia, business and media and civil society in 10 Asean ­nations – said the US’ reputation under Trump had either deteriorated or deteriorated immensely.

Because of Trump’s indifference to the region, including the US’ withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership free-trade deal, over 54 per cent of those ­surveyed found the US less dependable than four months ago.

Many in the region still say US engagement is important to regional security, with 68 per cent agreeing the US should continue to uphold freedom of navigation in the disputed waters of the South China Sea, a key trade route.

However, just over 3 per cent saw the US as the most influential country in the region now or in the next 10 years. And nearly 75 per cent said China was already the dominant power in Southeast Asia and its influence was set to grow in the coming decade.

Despite warming ties between Beijing and Washington in recent weeks, 44 per cent expected US-China relations to become “more competitive” in the next 12 months. Another 14.5 per cent said tensions and animosity ­between the world’s top two economies would grow.

But China received the highest “negative responses” when respondents were asked if Beijing would “do the right thing” in contributing to global peace, security, prosperity and governance.

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As many as 72.5 per cent of the respondents said they have little or no confidence in China.

Nearly 65 per cent of the respondents said the US could not be relied on to uphold free trade, human rights and international law.

Xu Liping, a Southeast Asian affairs expert from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said the survey “truthfully underlined growing unease among Asean ­nations that they may have been ­ignored by the Trump administration”, but it exaggerated China’s influence in the region.

“Southeast Asia is surrounded by ­regional powers and they have to play a balancing game very ­carefully and that’s why they have such mixed feelings when they look at China’s expanding regional clout and Washington’s waning influence,” he said.

Despite China’s efforts to seek close political and economic ties with its Southeast Asian neighbours in recent years, Beijing should not overestimate its influence because most Asean nations still pinned their hopes on US intervention in regional affairs to balance out China, Xu said.