A+ A-

Articles & Commentaries

2023/45 “Why China Supports the Southeast Asia Nuclear Weapon-Free Zone” by Hoang Thi Ha


Meeting of the Executive Committee of the Southeast Asia Nuclear Weapon-Free Zone (SEANWFZ) Commission at the ASEAN Secretariat, Jakarta, Indonesia, on 2 February 2023. Source: ASEAN Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/photo/?fbid=560547949433810&set=a.229947612493847. Accessed 1 June 2023.


  • Almost three decades after the signing of the Southeast Asia Nuclear Weapon-Free Zone (SEANWFZ) Treaty, none of the five recognised Nuclear Weapon States (NWS) has acceded to its Protocol.
  • The NWSs have problems with the expansive and indeterminate geographical coverage of SEANWFZ, the issue of port visits and transit of foreign ships/aircraft in the zone, and the extensive scope of their nuclear security assurances in the Protocol.
  • Since 1999, China has expressed its readiness to sign the Protocol and is the only NWS willing to do so without reservations, though on the condition that the Treaty and Protocol shall not affect its territories and relevant maritime zones.
  • China adopts a favourable approach towards SEANWFZ because the Treaty fits in with its national security strategy and self-defensive nuclear doctrine, which includes the unconditional No First Use of nuclear weapons against non-nuclear-weapon states.
  • The expansive geographic coverage of SEANWFZ – if implemented – would undercut the deployment of foreign powers’ nuclear assets in a large swathe of the maritime area in China’s vicinity, which would enhance China’s strategic security.
  • China could instrumentalise SEANWFZ as a regional arrangement to delegitimise the military presence of foreign powers in the region, thereby contributing to the Chinese anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) strategy in normative terms.
  • China has highlighted its readiness to sign the Protocol to prove itself a responsible nuclear-armed state and claim the moral high ground in criticising the nuclear policy of the US and its allies, especially their nuclear power projection in China’s near neighbourhood.

* Hoang Thi Ha is Senior Fellow and Co-coordinator of the Regional Strategic and Political Studies Programme at ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute, Singapore.

ISEAS Perspective 2023/45, 5 June 2023

Download PDF Version


The Southeast Asia Nuclear Weapon-Free Zone (SEANWFZ) or Bangkok Treaty[1] was signed on 15 December 1995 by the ten Southeast Asian states[2] and entered into force on 28 March 1997. The States Parties to the Treaty are therewith obliged to ensure peaceful use of nuclear energy, and not to develop or acquire nuclear weapons, test nuclear explosive devices, or dump radioactive wastes within the zone. The Treaty includes a Protocol[3] that is open to accession by the five recognised Nuclear Weapon States (NWS or P5), namely China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom (UK) and the United States (US), whose support and recognition are critical to the efficacy of SEANWFZ. The NWSs’ accession to the Protocol would entail their obligation to respect the Treaty, refrain from acts that may violate the Treaty, and provide negative security assurances (NSA), i.e., not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against the SEANWFZ States Parties and within the zone.

SEANWFZ is one of five nuclear weapon-free zones (NWFZ), which are seen as providing “the regional pathway” towards the ultimate goal of a nuclear weapon-free world.[4] SEANWFZ was also considered an interim measure towards achieving the 1971 Zone of Peace, Freedom and Neutrality (ZOPFAN). Spearheaded by Malaysia, ZOPFAN aimed to achieve a Southeast Asia “free from any form or manner of interference by outside powers”[5] but its realisation has been elusive, given that Southeast Asia is historically and geographically intertwined with the major powers’ strategic interests, and some regional states still maintain security alliances or close security ties with external powers. ZOPFAN’s ahistorical idealism was embedded in SEANWFZ’s key provisions regarding its expansive geographical coverage and the extensive scope of the NSA. This is the underlying reason for the lack of progress in getting the P5 – except China – to sign its Protocol up to now.

China has been an outlier among the P5 in that it has expressed its intent to sign the Protocol since the late 1990s, shortly after the Treaty’s entry into force. The regional security environment has since deteriorated drastically with the intensification of US-China strategic tensions. Yet, China’s interest in SEANWFZ remains strong, and arguably has even increased as it sees itself as the target of a US-led strategy of “containment, encirclement and suppression”.[6] This Perspective examines the legal and geopolitical intricacies of SEANWFZ that underlie China’s longstanding willingness to sign its Protocol in contrast to other NWSs. It argues that beyond non-proliferation considerations, supporting SEANWFZ serves China’s security interests amid its heightened tensions with the US and its allies.


The SEANWFZ States Parties – which are also the ten ASEAN member states – have held many consultations with the NWSs to persuade the latter to accede to the Protocol. The NWSs have objections and concerns regarding some substantive provisions of the Treaty and its Protocol (Table 1).

  • Expansive geographical scope

Article 2 of the SEANWFZ Treaty states that the Treaty and its Protocol shall apply to the territories, exclusive economic zones (EEZ) and continental shelves (CS) of its States Parties. The inclusion of EEZ and CS is a unique feature of SEANWFZ that exceeds the standard coverage of only territories as in other NWFZs. It also goes beyond the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) which prescribes the sovereign rights of a coastal state only with respect to the living and non-living resources in its EEZ and CS. The legal regime of EEZ and CS under UNCLOS is a delicate balance between the rights of coastal states and the freedoms of ocean user states. It remains a subject of contention between the majority of UN members, which hold that all states have the right to conduct military operations in any EEZ, and a minority of around 20 states (including China and some Southeast Asian states such as Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand), which impose restrictions on military operations by foreign powers in their EEZ.[7] The inclusion of EEZ and CS in the geographical coverage of SEANWFZ is even more problematic due to the unresolved competing territorial and maritime claims in the South China Sea (SCS) among some Southeast Asian states and China.

  • Port visits and transit rights

Article 3.2 of the Treaty forbids a State Party from developing, manufacturing, possessing, having control over, stationing, transporting, testing or using nuclear weapons. The US, UK and France[8] maintain that there is a conflict between this article and Article 7 on the prerogative of a State Party to allow visits by foreign ships/aircraft to its ports/airfields or their transit in its territorial sea. These NWSs want to ensure that the Treaty would not impinge on their port visits and transit rights in the region (since these NWSs maintain the policy to neither confirm nor deny [NCND] the presence of nuclear weapons at a given location, the possibility that their visiting/transiting ships/aircraft in the region are nuclear-armed cannot be entirely ruled out). They insist on a clarification to ensure that Article 7 takes precedence over Article 3.2.

  •  Extensive negative security assurances

The NSA clause in the SEANWFZ Protocol requires that the NWSs commit not to use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against any SEANWFZ State Party and not to use or threaten to use nuclear weapons within the zone. The latter part – “within the zone” – is problematic to the NWSs on two levels. First, the geographical application of SEANWFZ is not only expansive (involving the EEZ and CS of its States Parties) but also indeterminate (because of the territorial and maritime disputes in the SCS). Second, it would mean that an NWS cannot use nuclear weapons against another NWS within this expansive and indeterminate zone and cannot use nuclear weapons from within this expansive and indeterminate zone against targets outside the zone.[9] This is well beyond the NSA that the NWSs traditionally extend to other NWFZs, which is limited to not using or threatening to use nuclear weapons against the territories of the zonal countries.

  •  China’s sovereignty and maritime interests

Unlike France, Russia, the UK and the US (the P4), China rarely stakes out its position with regard to the above-mentioned outstanding issues. China’s only stated concern vis-à-vis SEANWFZ is that the Treaty and its Protocol might contradict or undermine its territorial and maritime rights and interests in the SCS. To address this concern, during the consultations in 2010-2012, the SEANWFZ States Parties and China agreed that they would sign a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) stating that the Treaty and its Protocol shall not affect their respective territories, EEZ and CS.

Table 1: Outstanding Issues Regarding NWS’s Accession to the SEANWFZ Protocol

Outstanding issuesExtraordinary terms compared to other NWFZs?[10]Solutions Agreed Upon by the NWSs and SEANWFZ States Parties (as of 2012)
Geographical scope  Yes – Inclusive of EEZ and CSRevised Protocol stating that in the EEZ and CS of SEANWFZ States Parties, P5 shall adhere to only Article 3.3 of the Treaty that bans dumping of radioactive wastes in the zone.
Nuclear security assurancesYes – Not to use or threaten to use nuclear weapons within the zoneRevised Protocol limiting NSA to not using or threatening to use nuclear weapons against SEANWFZ States Parties
Port visits and transit rightsNo – Some NWSs also have concerns over the issue of port visits/transit rights in other NWFZs (Tlateloco, Pelindaba, Rarotonga).Revised Protocol asserting the prerogative of SEANWFZ States Parties in allowing port visits and transit by foreign ships/aircraft
Sovereignty and maritime jurisdictionSome NWSs also make reservations to exclude their own territories that are covered within some NWFZs. But SEANWFZ is rather different because it covers territories and maritime zones under dispute between its States Parties and China.An MoU between China and SEANWFZ States Parties stating that the Treaty and its Protocol shall not affect their territories, EEZ and CS

Despite several consultations between the SEANWFZ States Parties and the P5 held in the late 1990s and early 2000s, these outstanding issues were not resolved, and the matter was put on the backburner. The momentum to get the P5 to sign the Protocol was revived in 2010-2011, in part due to the importance that the Obama administration accorded to strengthening the international non-proliferation regime.[11] To address the outstanding issues, the SEANWFZ States Parties and the P5 negotiated a revised Protocol to the effect that: (i) in the EEZ and CS of the SEANWFZ States Parties, the P5 shall adhere to only Article 3.3 of the Treaty that bans the dumping of radioactive material/wastes; (ii) the SEANWFZ States Parties shall retain the prerogative to allow port visits and transit of foreign ships/aircraft pursuant to Article 7; and (iii) the P5’s NSA commitment shall be limited to not using or threatening to use nuclear weapons against the SEANWFZ States Parties.

The scheduled signing of the revised Protocol by the P5 in July 2012 was forestalled by the reservations lodged at the eleventh hour by France, Russia and the UK. Some reservations by France or the UK state that accession to the Protocol shall not impair a NWS’ right of self-defence; a NWS can retract/review its obligations vis-à-vis a SEANWFZ State Party that ceases to be a party to the NPT, or breaches its non-proliferation obligations under the SEANWFZ Treaty, or develops other weapons of mass destruction. The most controversial reservation was made by Russia, which stated that it would not consider itself bound by the Protocol if a Southeast Asian state allowed foreign ships/aircraft carrying nuclear weapons to enter its territorial waters/airspace or to visit its ports/airfields.[12] Given the NCND policy of some NWSs, the Russian reservation would put undue pressure on the SEANWFZ States Parties and challenge their prerogative to exercise their rights under Article 7.[13] Due to the objection of some SEANWFZ States Parties to some or all of these reservations, the P5’s accession to the Protocol was put on hold, and the issue has been in hiatus since 2012.


China’s readiness to sign the Protocol is a longstanding position that was registered as early as 1999.[14] Beijing has indicated on various occasions that it is willing to be the first NWS to sign the Protocol,[15] and to do so without reservations.[xvi] The Chinese intent was reiterated by Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang during his meeting with the ASEAN secretary-general in March 2023.[17] This article argues that China adopts a favourable approach towards SEANWFZ because the Treaty fits in with its nuclear doctrine and national security strategy, and accession to the Protocol could provide both geostrategic and diplomatic dividends for China.

China’s No First Use policy

China’s nuclear doctrine has been evolving in keeping with its growing nuclear capabilities and the changes in its external security environment. Yet, it still retains the self-defensive posture and the policy of unconditional No First Use (NFU) of nuclear weapons, which is reiterated in China’s 2019 Defence White Paper: “China is always committed to a nuclear policy of no first use of nuclear weapons at any time and under any circumstances, and not using or threatening to use nuclear weaponsagainst non-nuclear-weapon states or nuclear-weapon-free zones unconditionally (emphasis added).”[18] To China’s credit, it is the only P5 country maintaining an unconditional NFU policy, which makes the Chinese nuclear doctrine less aggressive than those of other NWSs. Since China’s NSA commitment to Southeast Asian countries is well within the bounds of its NFU policy, its accession to the Protocol is more straightforward than that of the P4.

China’s sea-based nuclear force

China’s self-defensive nuclear policy seeks to maintain a “lean and effective” nuclear deterrence based on first-strike survival and second-strike capabilities.[19] In the nuclear triad of an NWS – i.e., land-based nuclear missiles, strategic bombers, and ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) – SSBNs are considered “the primary guarantor of second-strike capabilities” given their advantages in stealth and survivability.[20] However, noisiness is the Achilles’ heel of Chinese SSBNs – from the Type 092 Xia-class in the 1970s-1990s to the newer Type 094 Jin-class – which makes them vulnerable to anti-submarine warfare and limits their ability to navigate far beyond the Chinese shores.[21] It should be noted that the Chinese submarine fleet is home-ported at Yulin Naval Base on Hainan Island in the SCS; given its expansive claims in the SCS, China could justify the presence and operations of its SSBNs in these waters as falling well within its sovereignty and jurisdiction. Meanwhile, if the P4 respected the expansive geographic coverage of the SEANWFZ Treaty and the extensive NSA in the original Protocol – which is extremely unlikely, if not impossible – it would significantly undercut the deployment of their nuclear assets – particularly SSBNs – in a large swathe of maritime area in China’s southern vicinity, which would in turn enhance China’s strategic security and the defence of its sea-based nuclear deterrence.[22]

China’s anti-access/area-denial strategy

China’s support for SEANWFZ is rooted in the strategic assessment that such an extended zone – if implemented – would contribute to the country’s anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) strategy which is aimed at denying the military power projection of superior adversaries in China’s near neighbourhood.[23] Apart from investing in anti-ship, anti-air, anti-ballistic weapons and anti-submarine capabilities for its A2/AD system, China has also fostered regional arrangements and agreements that could be leveraged to delegitimise or discredit the military presence of foreign powers in the region. These include the SEANWFZ Treaty, as well as China’s proposal for a treaty on good neighbourliness, friendship and cooperation with ASEAN,[24] China’s attempt to prevent Southeast Asian countries from conducting military exercises with foreign powers through a code of conduct in the SCS (COC), and its recent Global Security Initiative that embraces the ‘indivisible security’ concept.

China’s sovereignty and maritime claims in the SCS

Theoretically, if all NWSs accede to the SEANWFZ Protocol, they would be bound by the same legal obligations therein. However, the strategic security effect for the P4 and China would be significantly different because only the latter is located within the region. While the P4 are concerned about the undefined geographical scope of the zone due to the ongoing territorial and maritime disputes in the SCS, such ambiguity may work to China’s advantage. China has excessive sovereignty and maritime claims within its Nine-Dash Line that covers around 90% of the SCS.[25] The coverage of China’s claims has been extended further with its ‘Four Sha’ concept whereby China asserts all maritime zones, including internal waters, territorial seas, contiguous zone, EEZ and CS, based on the so-called “four outlying archipelagos” in the SCS (Pratas, Paracels, Spratlys and Macclesfield Bank), which it is not allowed to do under UNCLOS as a continental state.[26] China has demanded that an MoU be signed to ensure that neither the Treaty nor the Protocol shall affect its territory and maritime entitlements. This would effectively guarantee China’s free hand in defining the geographical scope of SEANWFZ in a flexible and selective manner that best serves its interests. For example, China may challenge nuclear deployments of other NWSs in the zone as violations of SEANWFZ but it can justify the presence of its nuclear assets in the zone on the grounds that such deployment takes place within China’s (claimed) territory and jurisdiction.

Responsible nuclear weapon state discourse

Since France, Russia, the UK and the US do not accept the extraordinary terms of the SEANWFZ Treaty and its original Protocol regarding the inclusion of EEZ and CS and the NSA commitment within the zone, SEANFWZ has no legal effect in preventing these countries from deploying their nuclear assets in regional waters beyond the territories of its States Parties. However, by signalling its readiness to sign the Protocol first and without reservations, China can turn SEANWFZ into a discursive and political weapon to project itself as a responsible nuclear power and claim the moral high ground in criticising the nuclear policy of the US and its allies as well as their nuclear assets in regional waters.

Hence, SEANWFZ – and China’s interest in signing its Protocol – has gained greater salience in China’s regional diplomacy after the launch of the Australia-UK-US (AUKUS) tripartite security partnership in 2021, which aims to provide Australia with nuclear-powered (but conventionally armed) attack submarines. The Chinese government believes that AUKUS would “form an underwater military encirclement against China”.[27] It has also argued that AUKUS violates the nuclear non-proliferation regime[28] and has invoked SEANWFZ to criticise the deal. In March 2023, the Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson said that AUKUS “undercuts ASEAN countries’ effort to establish SEANWFZ and seriously undermines the ASEAN-centred regional cooperation architecture in East Asia”.[29] Chinese commentaries state that China’s willingness to sign the Protocol is a manifestation of its “due responsibility as a major power that seeks peaceful development” and contrasts its position with the “irresponsible behaviours of the AUKUS countries”.[30]


The SEANWFZ States Parties maintain a longstanding position that all outstanding issues with the NWSs should be resolved in a ‘package deal’ so as to enable their accession to the Protocol concurrently.[31] Therefore, China has not been able to sign the Protocol despite its express intent to do so for decades. However, the rapidly deteriorating global strategic environment may warrant a rethink by the SEANWFZ States Parties on the ‘package deal’. The US and Russia – the two largest nuclear powers – have taken steps to walk back from their arms control obligations, including US withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty and Russia’s suspension of its participation in the New START. Closer to home in East Asia, the race to develop nuclear capabilities is gathering pace. China is expanding and upgrading its nuclear arsenal and may become an atomic peer of the US and Russia by the 2030s, according to the US’ 2022 Nuclear Posture Review.[32] America’s withdrawal from the INF raises the concern that Washington may introduce short-range ballistic and cruise missiles in Asia.[33] The US’ Asian allies, while stopping short of developing nuclear weapons, are re-arming themselves to deal with nuclear threats (Australia with nuclear-powered attack submarines, Japan with counter-strike capabilities, and South Korea with submarine-launched ballistic missiles and its public debate on the need to acquire nuclear weapons). They are also seeking to consolidate the US’ nuclear deterrence umbrella in the region.[34] Most ominously, Russia’s nuclear blackmail in its war against Ukraine draws home the vulnerabilities of non-nuclear-weapon states in the face of great-power bullying.

Against this backdrop – and with China’s diplomatic activism – the SEANWFZ States Parties may drop the ‘package deal’ approach to pave the way for China’s accession to the Protocol. After all, it is a common practice that NWSs accede to other NWFZs’ protocols at different points of time.[35] Apart from China’s NSA – which is already covered under its NFU policy – China’s accession would add a legal guarantee that it would not dump radioactive wastes in the zone, exert political pressure on other NWSs to follow suit, and raise the profile of SEANWFZ at a time when “the risk of nuclear weapons use is higher than at any time since the Cold War”.[36]

Yet, China’s accession would raise several legal and policy questions for the SEANWFZ States Parties. First, should China sign the original Protocol or the revised Protocol? Since the original is a non-starter for the remaining NWSs, using the revised Protocol would minimise legal complications when the SEANWFZ States Parties re-negotiate with them in the future. It is also important to ponder the implications of the above-mentioned MoU which would give China a free hand in defining the geographical scope of SEANWFZ in ways that serve its interests, possibly at the expense of those of SEANWFZ States Parties and other NWSs. Last but not least, China’s accession to the Protocol would be a strategic and diplomatic win for Beijing in its enduring quest to displace external military power from the region. In the final analysis, China values SEANWFZ not only because it is a regional non-proliferation regime per se but because its terms serve China’s strategic security in discrediting the nuclear forward deployment by foreign powers in China’s near neighbourhood. Now, as before, SEANWFZ States Parties remain confronted with the chasm between their nuclear weapon-free aspirations and their security interests from a balance of power in the region. This is as much a problem of strategic incoherence among the States Parties themselves as it is about their substantive differences with the NWSs.


For endnotes, please refer to the original pdf document.

ISEAS Perspective is published electronically by: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute   30 Heng Mui Keng Terrace Singapore 119614 Main Tel: (65) 6778 0955 Main Fax: (65) 6778 1735   Get Involved with ISEAS. Please click here: /support/get-involved-with-iseas/ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute accepts no responsibility for facts presented and views expressed.   Responsibility rests exclusively with the individual author or authors. No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form without permission.   © Copyright is held by the author or authors of each article.Editorial Chairman: Choi Shing Kwok  
Editorial Advisor: Tan Chin Tiong  
Editorial Committee: Terence Chong, Cassey Lee, Norshahril Saat, and Hoang Thi Ha  
Managing Editor: Ooi Kee Beng  
Editors: William Choong, Lee Poh Onn, Lee Sue-Ann, and Ng Kah Meng  
Comments are welcome and may be sent to the author(s).


2023/44 “The Power of Fantasy: Southeast Asians Develop an Obsession with Chinese Xianxia Dramas” by Gwendolyn Yap


The popular xianxia drama, The Untamed (https://www.facebook.com/TheUntamedNET), featured on Facebook. Accessed 25 May 2023.


  • In the past five years, a new genre of Chinese drama, xianxia (仙侠), has been rising in popularity in Southeast Asia. This genre combines Chinese mythology and culture with fantasy and action and has been very well-received by Southeast Asian audiences.
  • While xianxia finds its roots in wuxia (武侠), the distinctive differences between the two require that xianxia be regarded as a genre of its own. However, the interchangeable use of the two terms on drama ranking sites has led to criticisms that xianxia is unable to live up to wuxia’s legacy. Nonetheless, the phenomenal popularity of xianxia should not be underestimated.
  • Two reasons for its popularity in Southeast Asia are xianxia’s status as a hybrid cultural product constructed to appeal to regional audiences, and the recent foray of Chinese streaming services into Southeast Asia.
  • However, the popularity of xianxia is threatened by domestic restrictions in China, such as crackdowns on online literature websites – from where many xianxias were adapted – and tighter regulations in 2021 on how men should be portrayed on-screen.
  • Nonetheless, the continued popularity of xianxia in Southeast Asia has led to further China-Southeast Asian collaborations in entertainment and in other East-Asian countries picking up on the trend. Thus, it appears that China’s foray into regional popular entertainment will only continue to grow.

*Gwendolyn Yap is Research Officer under the Regional, Social & Cultural Studies Program at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.

ISEAS Perspective 2023/44, 29 May 2023

Download PDF Version


On 21 September 2019, a 9,000-strong crowd eagerly watched the stage of IMPACT Arena, Bangkok, Thailand.[1] They were not there for K-pop stars or for Japanese celebrities. Instead, they were awaiting the leading cast of The Untamed (陈情令), a Chinese xianxia (仙侠) drama. Earlier in 2019, this 50-episode Chinese xianxia was released on Chinese online streaming site, Tencent Video. It swept domestic and regional markets, ranking first in popularity among 631 web dramas from 2019 to 2020 at the 8th China Internet Audio and Video Convention.[2] The wildfire of The Untamed did not leave Southeast Asia unscathed, having garnered 106 million views in the region.[3] Due to its popularity in Southeast Asia, a world tour for the cast of The Untamed was announced, with Bangkok being the first stop, followed by Vietnam, Singapore and Malaysia. Unfortunately, this was derailed due to the pandemic.[4]

By 2021, two years after its initial release, The Untamed had acquired 9.8 billion views on Tencent Video.[5] The success of The Untamed heralded a new wave of Chinese xianxia dramas, with the genre producing 13 new dramas in the second half of 2022, and 16 drama releases projected for release in 2023.[6] These new dramas have been made available on regional streaming sites such as Netflix, Disney+, WeTV and iQiYi, to feed the demand.[7] Like the Korean wave of the 2000s that has now translated into a tool of soft power for the Korean government[8], this surge in xianxia’s popularity represents a potential source of soft power for China. Specifically, xianxia dramas were born out of China’s push to globalise its entertainment industry, following in the footsteps of Korea’s success[9]. However, with the Chinese state moving to regulate xianxia’s production domestically, complications regarding the spread of Chinese soft power arose.

Xianxia’s popularity in Southeast Asia raises two important questions: First, how and why did xianxia reach this level of popularity in Southeast Asia? Second, what does this sudden popularity bode for China’s regional soft power?


Xianxia derives its name from two words, shenxian (神仙) and xia (侠). Shenxian broadly refers to gods, demons and immortals in the Chinese mythological realm, while xia refers tales of wuxia (武侠),the hero-warrior figure. Xianxia merges the characteristics of the two terms in its literature, broadly positioning the immortal as the hero-warrior who overcomes difficulties to save the world. However, it is not necessary for the titular character of xianxia to be a god or an immortal. Many xianxias feature humans who go on to attain god-like spiritual powers – and even immortality – through ‘cultivation’ (修炼 xiulian).

Sharing the root concept of a hero-warrior triumphing over evil, xianxia and wuxia are often conflated on drama ranking pages, making it difficult to distinguish between them.[10] However, xianxias carry distinctive differences from wuxias and should be viewed as a separate phenomenon of its own (see Table 1). Indeed, its predecessor, wuxia, has been highly popular in Southeast Asian markets since the 1930s, carrying a long and rich tradition that cannot be easily subsumed under the more recent phenomenon of xianxia.[11]

Table 1: Differences between Xianxia and Wuxia [12]

FocusPhysical actionMagic and fantasy action
CharactersWorking-class descentNoble/deity descent
DramatisationHistorical realismHistorical aestheticism
Thematic ConcernsViolence/loyalty/brotherhoodRomance/beauty/loyalty
AuthorsDominated by menDominated by women

From the table above, one could say that xianxia is an extension from, not a continuation of wuxia. Despite the differences in content, the interchangeable labelling of the two genres has led to criticism that xianxia is unable to live up to the legacy of wuxia. Critics declare the jianghu(江湖) – the alternate realm that wuxia novels are set in – dead,[13] regarding xianxias to not be worthy enough to continue the complex world-building that the wuxia classics embarked so elegantly upon. Others bemoan the superficiality of xianxia, either in its overly romantic storytelling or its hyper-focus on good-looking actors.[14] Despite these criticisms, the explosive popularity of xianxia reflects an appeal that cannot be taken lightly. The next section will look at the possible reasons for the regional attractiveness of xianxia.  


The popularity of xianxia in Southeast Asia can be attributed to two factors. First of all, xianxia is a hybrid cultural product that appeals to regional audiences. Secondly, the recent foray of Chinese streaming services into Southeast Asia coincided with the heightened attention paid to the xianxia phenomenon.

As mentioned, xianxia is a product of “cultural mixing”, and this cements its appeal to Southeast Asian audiences. “Cultural mixing” is a term used to denote how different cultures merge through the processes of production and adaptation to generate new products that transcend national borders.[15] In xianxia’s case, it originated through a blend of Japanese and Chinese cultural influences to be later translated on-screen through Korean-influenced production processes.

In the previous section, it was mentioned that xianxia originated from web novels. These web novels are published on online literature websites such as Jinjiang (now partially owned by Tencent) and JJWXC. These websites often featured fan fiction written in the danmei (耽美) style that originated in Japan as yaoi (Boys’ Love). Featuring homoerotic relationships between men, the genre spilled over into China from Japan as early as the 2000s.[16] Danmei, meaning “indulgence in beauty”, features the leads as aesthetically beautiful and desirable,[17] and displaying traits contrary to traditional expectations of gender. The web novels reinterpreted Chinese classics and wuxias into danmei novels for a dominantly female readership. Over time, it was this combination of influences that gave birth to the aesthetic-focused hybrid, xianxia.

Xianxia combines the elements of aesthetic beauty sought by danmei writers and the tales about loyalty, the triumph of good over evil, and justice as modelled by wuxia. In fact, The Untamed is one such homoerotic xianxia adapted from the online web novel, Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation (魔道祖师). In contrast to its origins, however, xianxia is not exclusively confined to homosexual relationships, and often features heterosexual couples in storytelling. TV adaptations of xianxias featuring heterosexual couples include Love Between Fairy and Devil (苍兰诀) and Eternal Love (三生三世十里桃花). Both have garnered high viewership domestically and regionally.

If the xianxia web novel is a mixing of Chinese wuxia and Japanese danmei, then the drama adaptation is a product formed through the addition of Korean production aesthetics. Following the success of the Korean drama My Love from the Stars (2013) in China, the Chinese media industry sent delegates to Korea to learn from the “‘success story’ of the Korean Wave”, sparking a tide of collaboration between Korea and China on production know-how.[18] This led to the globalisation of drama production in China, aimed at attracting external audiences and bolstering Chinese soft power. Through these collaborations, many Chinese studios began not only to adapt dramas from Korea for their local audiences but to produce original stories for global consumption. The xianxias is a result of this.

Indeed, the ability of xianxia to introduce traditional Chinese culture and mythology to a global audience aligns with the ambition of the state to increase the reach of its soft power.[19] Love Between Fairy and Devil, a xianxia that garnered 1st place in global popularity rankings four hours after its release,[20] had 32 intangible cultural heritage traditional crafts presented, and 27 intangible cultural heritage craftsmen working on the show.[21] Thus, through cultural mixing, xianxia not only makes itself palatable to Southeast Asian audiences but provides enough uniqueness to set it apart from dramas produced by Japan and Korea.

Secondly, the accessibility and affordability of Chinese streaming services in the region contribute to the popularity of xianxia. From 2019 to 2020, Tencent – one of China’s biggest tech companies – rolled out WeTV in Southeast Asia. WeTV is the international streaming arm of Tencent Video, the service responsible for releasing The Untamed to critical success. It is unsurprising therefore that The Untamed saw a surge in popularity in Southeast Asia in the same duration, reportedly achieving 250% growth for Tencent after the drama was made accessible through WeTV.[22]

During its initial entry into the Thai market, WeTV only offered original Chinese content with Thai dubbing.[23] After acquiring iFlix, the second biggest regional streaming service next to Netflix,[24] Tencent expanded to include Thai, Vietnamese and Indonesian subtitles to cater to regional audiences.[25] This expansion indicates that the reach of the Chinese streaming market has gone beyond that of the ethnic Chinese community to non-Chinese audiences in Southeast Asia.

To date, WeTV is one of the Top 3 OTT service providers in Southeast Asia,[26] taking up 10% of viewership regionally and coming in third to competitors Disney+ and Netflix.[27] On regional streaming services, 13% of content across all platforms are Chinese. It is worth noting, however, that Netflix – the largest viewing site regionally – also contracted popular Chinese xianxias for viewing, hence reducing the incentive for audiences to cross streaming platforms to view Chinese dramas.


While the Chinese state has largely encouraged the export of Chinese dramas to Southeast Asia, the xianxia genre has suffered domestic restrictions that threaten its status as a viable cultural product in Southeast Asia. The sanctions slapped against it include crackdowns on online literature websites – from which many xianxias were adapted – and tighter regulations in 2021 on how men should be portrayed on-screen.

The online literature websites from which xianxia dramas are drawn are highly popular in China, and in 2020 registered altogether  over 460 million readers.[28] In 2019, tightening online regulation by the Chinese government called for these websites to remove obscene literature from their platforms. Obscene literature refers to materials with sexual or LGBTQ content.[29] This meant that many xianxia stories built around homoerotic relationships are now inaccessible through these websites. While it can be argued that many xianxia novels remain permissible due to the fact that what they depict are heterosexual relationships, the ban effectively limits the pool of inspiration that xianxia dramas are adapted from. The irony is not lost on commentators who have observed that queer content are proven successful money-makers for streaming giants. However, its heavy reliance on the capital provided through adaptation means that these contents are now often swept under the rug as state regulations kick in.[30]

The second obstacle to xianxia’s popularity is the portrayal of men on-screen. In 2021, China’s National Radio and TV Administration released a series of guidelines targeted the entertainment industry. The third clause states that artists are not allowed to be ‘sissy’ (娘炮), and have to adhere to a ‘proper beauty standard’ (正确审美导向).[31] While the terms remain vague, the statement suggests that effeminate portrayals of men are discouraged. These include having men having delicate or graceful mannerisms or acting in any manner not regarded as stereotypically masculine.[32] This further limits the production ability of xianxia dramas, which now have to factor in the effeminateness of their costumes, actors and mannerisms. This poses a problem as xianxia’s main draw are good-looking, delicate-featured actors preferred by the dominantly female audience. Directors of xianxia dramas even acknowledge that good looks are of priority over the skillset of the actors when it comes to casting.[33]

However, the extent of these restrictions on xianxia production for a global audience remains uncertain. As streaming companies host differing applications for their domestic and international audience – for instance, Tencent Video caters to Chinese audiences while WeTV is internationally directed ­– what may impact the domestic market may not affect the international market. Nonetheless, as China’s cultural image heavily relies on its portrayal through international channels, this image cannot stray too far from what is presented domestically, making the future of xianxias uncertain.


While domestic restrictions remain a central concern for xianxia adaptations, exported xianxia dramas have recorded a spike in production in the past and upcoming years. This indicates that the continued demand for xianxia outweighs the problems brought on by domestic censorship, reinforcing the notion that soft power is often societally driven and not state-motivated. Indeed, xianxia dramas have opened doors for China-Southeast Asia collaboration in entertainment. After WeTV’s success in establishing itself in the region using xianxia, it has moved to draft partnerships with production companies in Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines to produce local content under WeTV Originals. It has also begun to open doors for regional advertisers on their streaming app.[34]

iQiyi, a rival Chinese streaming service, inked a collaboration with Singaporean company G.H.Y Culture to produce short drama series for Singaporean viewers[35] and has signed with Astro Malaysia to stream Chinese dramas for Malaysian viewers. These collaborations might allow production companies to sidestep Chinese restrictions and offer certain content – such as those relating to LGBTQ+ and other sensitive issues – for a global audience. With the increasing number of collaborations between regional production companies and their Chinese counterparts, it will not be surprising if examples of Southeast Asian xianxia appear in the near future.

The genre’s popularity is also not lost on other East Asian countries, and Korea has released its own xianxia-esque drama on Netflix, titled Alchemy of Souls.[36] Though it represents a relatively new genre for Korea, it has been very well-received by Korean and Southeast Asian audiences, ranking Top 10 on Netflix for an average of 25 consecutive weeks across Southeast Asian countries.[37] This suggests that Chinese production companies face competition from their better-established East Asian counterparts, and should not take their recent popularity for granted.

While xianxias gain more attention in the region, how it will benefit China and Chinese policymakers remains unclear. However, from the continued growth of Chinese TV shows in the region and the increased demand for new xianxias, it appears that China’s rise in popular entertainment in the region will only continue. 


For endnotes, please refer to the original pdf document.

ISEAS Perspective is published electronically by: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute   30 Heng Mui Keng Terrace Singapore 119614 Main Tel: (65) 6778 0955 Main Fax: (65) 6778 1735   Get Involved with ISEAS. Please click here: /support/get-involved-with-iseas/ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute accepts no responsibility for facts presented and views expressed.   Responsibility rests exclusively with the individual author or authors. No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form without permission.  
© Copyright is held by the author or authors of each article.
Editorial Chairman: Choi Shing Kwok  
Editorial Advisor: Tan Chin Tiong  
Editorial Committee: Terence Chong, Cassey Lee, Norshahril Saat, and Hoang Thi Ha  
Managing Editor: Ooi Kee Beng   Editors: William Choong, Lee Poh Onn, Lee Sue-Ann, and Ng Kah Meng  
Comments are welcome and may be sent to the author(s).


“Bruneian Youths on Social Media: Key Trends and Challenges” by Siti Mazidah Mohamad



2023/43 “Move Forward Party Has Won the Election, but May Lose the Premiership Race” by Termsak Chalermpalanupap


Move Forward Party leader and prime ministerial candidate Pita Limjaroenrat speaks to the press whilst sitting with coalition partners at the signing ceremony for a memorandum of understanding (MOU) amongst eight Thai political parties in agreement to form a new government, in Bangkok on 22 May 2023. Photo: Lillian SUWANRUMPHA/AFP.


  • Move Forward Party (MFP) scored a surprise victory in the Thai general election on 14 May. It has announced the formation of an eight-party coalition with 313 MPs, a very comfortable majority in the 500-member House of Representatives.
  • However, at least 376 votes are needed to win the premiership for the leader, 42-year-old Pita Limjaroenrat. His coalition is thus short of 63 votes.
  • The premiership race will be convened in a joint parliamentary session attended by 500 MPs and 250 Senators. Most of the Senators are conservatives and pro-establishment, and will be very reluctant to support Pita, especially since his party advocates reforming the monarchy and cutting military spending.
  • Pita also faces a serious legal issue concerning his possession of 42,000 shares in an inactive television firm, the iTV. The Constitution prohibits anyone holding shares of newspaper or other mass media from running for a parliamentary seat or holding the premiership.
  • If found guilty, Pita will be disqualified from holding an MP seat in the House of Representatives, as well as contesting for the next premiership.
  • If Pita falls, Pheu Thai, which came second in the general election, will have a golden opportunity instead to lead a new coalition, perhaps even working with some parties from the Prayut Administration under the guise of national reconciliation.

*Termsak Chalermpalanupap is Visiting Fellow and Coordinator of the Thailand Studies Programme, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.

ISEAS Perspective 2023/43, 25 May 2023

Download PDF Version


After his Move Forward Party (MFP) scored a surprise victory in the Thai general election held on 14 May, party leader Pita Limjaroenrat quickly announced his readiness to be the next prime minister of Thailand. He may have spoken too early and too fast.

Coming first in the general election is a remarkable achievement for his young party, winning a tough battle against all odds with fearless but under-armed volunteers. Securing the premiership, however, is a more daunting challenge, a larger war in which Pita looks vulnerable, and might fail.

Teaming with its chief ally, Pheu Thai (PT) Party, the MFP is leading a coalition of eight parties[1] with 313 MPs in the 500-member House of Representatives. While this gives it a comfortable majority, it is still not strong enough to win the premiership for Pita.

Selection of the prime minister, expected to take place on 3 August, will be done in a joint parliamentary session of 500 MPs and 250 Senators. Here, at least 376 votes of support are needed to win.

Pita thus needs at least 63 supporting votes from outside his coalition. Since he and the MFP do not want to include any parties from the Prayut Administration, they will have to pin their hope on persuading enough Senators to support Pita.

Most of the Senators are conservatives and pro-establishment, chosen in early 2019 by the military regime headed by coup leader General Prayut Chan-o-cha.[2]

One misstep of the MFP is to nominate only Pita as its premiership candidate. Should he fail to gather enough votes to win the premiership, the MFP cannot put forth another premiership candidate of its own.

In that case, the PT can then step in to offer one of its three candidates[3] for the next round of the premiership race. It may be Paetongtarn Shinawatra, 36, daughter of exiled former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, or real estate tycoon Srettha Thavisin, 59. The PT’s third candidate is former justice minister Chaikasem Nitisiri, 75, who has been unwell and hospitalised.

Should no one from the PT get enough votes to win the premiership, the PT may seize the opportunity to lead a new coalition by ditching the MFP, and turning to work with some government parties in order to attract support from the Senators. Such an alternative coalition can have up to 290 MPs, sizeable enough to rule as a majority coalition government.[4]

If no one wins the premiership even then, such a new PT-led coalition can propose looking for an “outsider”[5] who is acceptable to most Senators to come in as its new choice for the premiership.

In the end, the MFP will be isolated for not wanting to be in any coalition that includes government parties from the Prayut Administration. Consequently and ironically, instead of becoming the 30th Thai prime minister, Pita may end up being the Opposition Leader.


Before he can win the premiership, Pita will have to defend his qualification to be an MP first.

The Election Commission has been examining a complaint against Pita for allegedly failing to dispose of his holding of 42,000 shares in iTV, a television station which has stopped broadcasting since 8 March 2007. But iTV has not been dissolved as a media business entity due to a pending lawsuit to seek compensation of 2,890 million baht from the Office of the Permanent Secretary of the Prime Minister’s Office for cancelling their broadcasting agreement.[6]

Section 98 (3) of the Constitution prohibits anyone owning or holding shares in any newspaper or mass media business from running for election to the House of Representatives. If the Election Commission finds enough evidence against Pita, it will send the complaint to the Constitutional Court for a ruling. If found guilty, Pita will be disqualified from holding an MP seat in the House of Representatives, and from contesting for the next premiership. Pita’s predecessor, Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, leader of Future Forward Party, was disqualified from the House membership after the Constitutional Court ruled in November 2019 that he had failed to properly dispose of his shares in V-Luck Media, an obscure variety magazine.

By mid-July, after certifying the election of all 500 MPs, the Election Commission is then expected to announce its consideration on the complaint against Pita. MFP supporters are now concerned that Pita might suffer a fate similar to Thanathorn’s.[7]

Thanathorn’s party was subsequently dissolved in February 2020 for illegally borrowing about 191.2 million baht from Thanathorn, a motor spare parts business tycoon. The Constitutional Court deemed such borrowing unlawful, since the party then exposed itself to financial control by Thanathorn. After the dissolution of Future Forward, the MFP was set up as a successor party, with Pita as its new leader.[8]


All opinion polls had consistently predicted that the PT would win the largest number of House seats. This emboldened the PT to campaign for a big “landslide victory” of winning up to 310 House seats, which would have allowed it to form a single-party government on its own.

Being beaten by the MFP came as a shock to many in the PT leadership. PT leaders have started doing an urgent soul-searching exercise in order to “rebrand” the party.

However, the PT, with 141 House seats, is actually in a better position than the MFP, which has 152 MPs. The PT has the flexibility of working with some parties in the Prayut Administration; whereas the MFP has rejected working with all parties in the previous government coalition.

If Pita fails to win the premiership, he and his MFP will have no other viable option, except to accept defeat and spend the next four years leading the opposition in the House.

In contrast, the PT can explore more options, including working with General Prawit and his PPRP, which has 41 MPs. General Prawit is known to have good connections in the Senate.[9] And the PT has never ruled out working with Public Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul’s Bhumjaithai (BJT), which won 70 House seats, making it the third largest party.

Some of these government parties’ MPs, including Anutin, are friends of PT’s senior members. They used to serve Thaksin in his popular Thai Rak Thai Party[10] (1998 -2007).

Even if neither Thaksin’s daughter Paetongtarn nor Srettha wins the premiership, a new PT-led coalition can still look for an “outsider” who may want to step in for the sake of national reconciliation. Most of the Senators would have no objection if the “outsider” is capable and non-partisan.

Being by far the largest party in such a PT-led coalition, the PT can claim a lion’s share of the 35 Cabinet posts as well as the House Speaker post. This is certainly a much better deal for it than staying with an MFP-led coalition, in which the MFP, with 152 MPs, 11 more House seats than the PT, would want to get the House Speaker[11] post, as well as a larger share of the Cabinet posts than the PT.


The Election Commission has 60 days to certify the outcome of each of the 400 constituencies. After that, it will determine the final allocation of the 100 party-list House seats, based on the total of second ballots each part has received.

In the meantime, the Election Commission will also have to deal with the complaint against Pita, as well as numerous cases of alleged wrongdoings in the election campaign. This will take months.

The House of Representatives can convene its opening session only after up to 475 MPs have been certified by the Election Commission. At the inaugural session, a new House Speaker will be elected by a majority of the MPs.

Here, a competition between the MFP and the PT is expected to take place. The PT wants the crucial parliamentary post for its party leader, Dr Cholnan Sri-kaew. But the MFP needs the post for its own MP to be in control in the House.[12]

One new nightmare of the MFP is a rumour about a “power play” by General Prawit. Under this rumour, General Prawit will dissolve his PPRP and resign. This will enable PPRP’s 41 MPs to join either the PT or the BJT. If only 12 of these 41 MPs join the PT, the PT will become the largest party with 153 MPs – one more MP than the MFP’s 152.[13]

Under this “power play”, the PT can easily team up with the BJT and other government parties to form a new majority coalition. In this case, the MFP will become the opposition leader. This could explain why General Prawit and incumbent PM General Prayut have never formally conceded defeat.


After the House Speaker has been appointed, the premiership selection can follow suit, after the 250 Senators have been notified.

If the MFP-led coalition falls short of the 376 votes needed to win the premiership for Pita, the House Speaker need not be in a hurry to convene the joint parliamentary for the premiership selection.

On the other hand, the MFP may want to force the issue and proceed with the premiership race in order to compel the 250 Senators to show their hands. Voting for the premiership will be on a roll call, and televised nationwide.

Senator Chalermchai Fuerng-kon, an “independent” representing the government retirees, has cautioned against putting too much pressure on the 250 Senators. From his own estimate, there are fewer than 20 in the Senate who would vote for Pita. When it comes to actual voting in parliament, there may be fewer than 10 – including he himself and a few like-minded Senators, who will support Pita.[14]

Senator Chalermchai’s advice to Pita and the MFP is for them to try to win support from MPs in the government parties. This will be much easier than trying to win the support of Senators. Many Senators have been offended by sharp criticisms from the MFP over the past four years, and many of them also strongly oppose the MFP’s initiative on monarchy reform, which include amending the controversial Section 112 of the Criminal Code, the so-called lese-majeste law.[15]

One of the continuing policy initiatives of the MFP is to amend the law and reduce its penalties, from 3 to 15 years of jail term down to 6 months to 1 year.[16] Most other parties, including the PT, do not want to touch this highly sensitive issue.

As a compromise, the MFP agreed to exclude Section 112 from the list of key common policies under the MOU signed on 22 May by leaders of the eight parties in the MFP-led coalition. But Pita reaffirmed the MFP’s intention to continue as its own party’s initiative to amend Section 112 in the House of Representatives. [17]

The PT has at least one good reason to play safe and avoid touching Section 112 for fear of upsetting pro-establishment conservatives: It wants to facilitate Thaksin’s return to Thailand, after nearly 17 years in exile overseas.

Thaksin announced on 9 May his new “decision” to return to Thailand before his 74th birthday, which will be on 26 July 2023.[18] Thaksin has 10 years of jail term from three convictions of conflict of interest cases awaiting his return. He can first go to jail and request a temporary release on bail while appealing the convictions. Or, better still, he can apply for a royal pardon.

Thaksin has reiterated that he and his Shinawatra clan have always respected the monarchy. And if the PT and the MFP are in government together, he believes the PT would disagree with any PT policy initiatives that could hurt or undermine the monarchy.[19]


Army Commander General Narongphan Jitkaew-thae has dismissed as “zero percent” the possibility of another coup after the general election.[20] He is however due to retire at the end of September. The political situation in Thailand may heat up later, especially if and when there is a deadlock on the premiership selection.

Even if there is a breakthrough and Pita becomes Thailand’s 30th prime minister, his premiership will face strong resistance in the Senate. Legislation work will slow down if a majority of Senators refuse to cooperate. Without support in the Senate, any attempt at passing a special amnesty law to free all those who have been convicted or arrested for violating Section 112 will fail. Street protests by anti-monarchy groups will then emerge.

On the other hand, if Pita fails and someone else assumes the premiership, his supporters may also take to the streets to vent their frustration. Chaos, clashes, bloodshed, crackdowns, and arrests may be inevitable.

When the country slips into unrest and violence, another military takeover cannot be ruled out. Should unrest in Thai society threaten to undermine the monarchy, then pro-establishment conservatives and royalists would also retaliate. Or worse still, some military leaders might want to take some drastic action to defend the monarchy.


The victory of the MFP is an unexpected political earthquake.

But it confirms the known widespread discontent of Thai voters unhappy with the Prayut Administration. And it is also a clear rejection of any return of either of the “Two Uncles”: General Prayut,69, and General Prawit, 78.[21]

However, it is still uncertain whether the new generation of young and idealistic MPs and politicians, led by Pita of the MFP, will be able to govern successfully and peacefully.

In fact, Pita still has to prove that he is fully qualified to hold public office. His possible disqualification will be a serious political after-shock.

The PT is confidently waiting for its turn to lead in forming a coalition, and going for a deal that can guarantee a happy return for Thaksin.


For endnotes, please refer to the original pdf document.

ISEAS Perspective is published electronically by: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute   30 Heng Mui Keng Terrace Singapore 119614 Main Tel: (65) 6778 0955 Main Fax: (65) 6778 1735   Get Involved with ISEAS. Please click here: /support/get-involved-with-iseas/ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute accepts no responsibility for facts presented and views expressed.   Responsibility rests exclusively with the individual author or authors. No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form without permission.   © Copyright is held by the author or authors of each article.Editorial Chairman: Choi Shing Kwok   Editorial Advisor: Tan Chin Tiong   Editorial Committee: Terence Chong, Cassey Lee, Norshahril Saat, and Hoang Thi Ha   Managing Editor: Ooi Kee Beng   Editors: William Choong, Lee Poh Onn, Lee Sue-Ann, and Ng Kah Meng   Comments are welcome and may be sent to the author(s).


2023/42 “Southeast Asian Views on the United States: Perceptions Versus Objective Reality” by Lee Sue-Ann


US President Joe Biden (L) meets Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen on the sidelines of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit in Phnom Penh on 12 November 2022. Picture: SAUL LOEB/AFP.


  • Data trends from the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute’s State of Southeast Asia annual survey carried out between 2019 and 2023 suggest an enduring tendency among the respondents in ASEAN member states to underestimate the United States’ power and influence in the region. The respondents have overwhelmingly identified China not only as the most influential economic power in Southeast Asia, but also as the most influential politically and strategically. Other indicators suggest a more nuanced picture. 
  • The trends also suggest that ASEAN countries have remained ambivalent about the US’ regional leadership role on multiple fronts. The majority of ASEAN member states generally do not look to the US to champion the global free trade agenda. The US fares slightly better regarding perceptions of its leadership role in upholding a rules-based order and international law but this confidence in the US is not decisive. The European Union is most often looked to as an alternative to US leadership on this front.
  • Among the ASEAN6 economies – Indonesia, Thailand, Singapore, Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines – confidence in the US as a reliable strategic partner and provider of regional security has been steadily declining since 2021. The decline has been sharpest in Singapore, Vietnam and Indonesia.
  • But when forced to choose between China and the US, the region in general has expressed a growing preference to align with the US. However, it is significant that in 2023, respondents from the three Muslim-majority states – Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei  – picked China over the US.
  • These indicators suggest that there is still a reservoir of goodwill towards the US in the region, but this is being depleted in some countries and cannot be taken for granted. Secondly, many ASEAN countries probably still hope that the US would exercise stronger leadership in the region especially amidst growing anxieties about the rise of China, but there is a clear undercurrent of pessimism and some disillusionment even amongst some of the US’ closest partners about its willingness and commitment to do so.

*Lee Sue-Ann is Senior Fellow and Coordinator of the Regional Strategic and Political Studies Programme, and editor at Fulcrum, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute. She also directs the Media, Technology and Society Programme at the Institute.

ISEAS Perspective 2023/42, 22 May 2023

Download PDF Version


Every year since 2019, the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute has been publishing its State of Southeast Asia (SSEA) survey report. This seeks to capture the perceptions of experts and opinion-makers across Southeast Asia on strategic matters. The survey employs a random purposive sampling of over 100 respondents in each of the 10 ASEAN member states – constituting a sample size of around 1,000 respondents ASEAN-wide. A 10% weighting average is then applied to each country’s responses to calculate the regional average to ensure that each country is equally represented, similar to ASEAN’s decision-making process.

Having polled respondents for their perceptions of major power rivalries and the pressing challenges facing the ASEAN region over the last five years, some trends have emerged.

This paper focuses on the data trends surrounding the region’s attitudes towards the United States. It crystallizes some key takeaways on the region’s perceptions of US power and influence in contrast to those that it has on China, views on US leadership on the economic, strategic and political fronts, and levels of trust and confidence in the US. The data used in this paper are drawn from the forthcoming report from the ASEAN Studies Centre at ISEAS on the 5-year data trends from the 2019-2023 SSEA survey reports.     


Data trends from the SSEA annual survey between 2019-2023 suggest that Southeast Asian countries have a chronic tendency to underestimate the extent of the United States’ power and influence in the region in comparison to China’s. Put differently, the perceptions of China’s overarching dominance in the region appear overblown when more objective indicators are taken into consideration.

Economic Power Perceptions

In the SSEA surveys carried out from 2019 to 2022, more than 75% of ASEAN-wide respondents consistently identified China as the region’s most influential economic power; this figure dipped significantly in 2023 to 59.9% (a clear consequence of China’s extended Covid-19 lockdown). At the same time, the US has consistently polled low scores in this regard, with the percentage of respondents who said the US was the region’s most influential economic power hovering in the single digits — a mean of 7.4%. In 2023, however, that figure rose slightly to 10.5% (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Percentage of survey respondents who identified China or the United States as the region’s most influential economic power

These perceptions should not be surprising, given how often mention of the region’s dependence on China for its economic future is made. It is often reiterated that China is the largest trading partner for the region as a whole, with total trade reaching US$669.2 billion in 2021, and also the top trading partner for all of ASEAN’s member states, save Brunei, whose top trading partner is Singapore.

But it is less often noted that the region runs a widening trade deficit with China. As Stewart Paterson from Hinrich Foundation points out, while ASEAN exports to China have grown, the propensity of China to import from ASEAN remains very low. The natural consequence of this asymmetry has been the widening of ASEAN’s goods trade deficit with China, which grew from US$15 billion in 2011 to US$82 billion in 2020.[1] In contrast, the US, despite having a smaller trading volume with the region (US$364.5 billion in 2021), is still a vital export market for ASEAN goods. In 2021, ASEAN’s goods trade surplus with the US was US$145.9 billion, compared to its goods trade deficit with China of US$107.7 billion that same year.[2] In fact, since 2013, trade with the US has consistently generated the largest surpluses for ASEAN from among its trading partners.

On the FDI front, China’s overall FDI stock in the region, while on the uptrend, still lags that of the US by far. In 2020, the US’ FDI stock in ASEAN was US$328.5 billion.[3] In contrast, China’s outward FDI stock in ASEAN countries as of 2021 was US$140.28 billion.[4] According to statistics from the ASEAN Secretariat, the cumulative value of US FDI investment between 2012 and 2021 was US$198.7 billion, compared to US$98.7 billion for China over the same period. To be sure, while US investments in the region are heavily concentrated in a few countries, with Singapore taking the lion’s share, China’s are spread more widely across the region – contributing to perceptions of China’s outsized influence.  

According to data drawn from the Lowy Institute’s Power Index, China has now become the top FDI investor in seven of the ten ASEAN member states. (Table 1) But when considering only the larger economies of the ASEAN6, China is the top FDI investor for three of them – Indonesia (making up 20% of FDI inflows into the country cumulatively from 2012 to 2021), Malaysia (28.5%) and the Philippines (22.2%). For the remaining three countries, the largest FDI source is Japan (for Thailand at 38.8%), the US (for Singapore at 26.8%) and South Korea (for Vietnam at 22.9%).

Table 1: The top FDI investor in each ASEAN member states

(Cumulative FDI inflows from 2012 to 2021)

Sources: IMF World Economic Outlook Database (April 2023) and Lowy Institute Asia Power Index 2023

Political and Strategic Power Perceptions

While regional experts and opinion makers may be excused for exaggerating China’s economic influence in the region, what is more surprising is the region’s pick for the country with the most political and strategic influence in Southeast Asia. Over the past five years, an average of 49% of ASEAN-wide respondents chose China, compared to the mean of 28.1% who recognized the US as the most politically and strategically influential country in Southeast Asia. (Figure 2).

The latter perception is clearly at odds with more objective measures of political and strategic measures of power. According to the Lowy Institute’s Asia Power Index 2023 Edition, the US remains on top in the rankings of Comprehensive Power.[5] In terms of military capability (which takes into account defence spending, armed forces and organization, weapons and platforms, signature capabilities and Asian military posture), the US is ranked first, with an index score of 90.7. China comes second with a relatively low index score of 68.1. Where defence networks and partnerships are concerned, the US is also ranked first, with an index score of 84.6 compared to China, which is ranked 7th with an index score of 23.7. However, in the category of diplomatic influence, China has pipped the US for the top spot with a score of 91.5, compared to the US’ 89.3. This is consistent with the findings of the SSEA surveys which suggest that regional countries think China’s influence is greater than its actual might. As the Lowy Institute Power Index report puts it, the US has been an “underachiever”, seeing how its actual resources and capabilities exceed the extent of its influence.

Figure 2. Percentage of survey respondents who identified China or the United States as the region’s most politically and strategically influential power


The trends from ISEAS’ SSEA survey offer some clues as to why the US has been “underachieving” in regional influence. In general, the region has been ambivalent and unconvinced about the US’ leadership role on multiple fronts.

A majority of ASEAN member states generally do not look to the US to champion the global free trade agenda. Over the past four years, ASEAN respondents have, on average, tended not to consider the US as the country in which they have most confidence in upholding the global free trade agenda (except in 2022) – preferring instead to pick the EU and ASEAN for that spot. (Table 2) In 2023, the only countries whose respondents cited the greatest confidence in the US’ leadership on this issue were Myanmar (53%), the Philippines (30.3%) and Vietnam (33.8%). The erosion of confidence in US leadership on the trade front is most likely driven by its clear protectionist turn over the years. The US’ longstanding tussles with the WTO Appellate Body and Washington’s efforts to limit the scope of its jurisdiction in ruling on trade disputes are seen as clear instances where the US privileged its national interests over global trade rules.[6] The US’ tightened investment screening regimes in critical technologies (as reflected in its CFIUS regulations and CHIPS Act) will probably also intensify concerns that US trade and investment flows into the region would increasingly be driven by its own national security and ‘friend-shoring’ considerations.

Table 2: Percentage of survey respondents who had the most confidence in the following countries and/or regional organizations to champion the global free trade agenda

The US fares slightly better regarding perceptions of its leadership role in upholding a rules-based order and international law – but the region’s confidence in the US on this matter is not decisive. The European Union is most often looked to as an alternative to US leadership on this front. In 2020 and 2021, respondents across ASEAN tended most often to cite the European Union as the entity in which they had most confidence in upholding the global rules-based order. In 2022 and 2023, it was the US that was most often cited – though its average score saw a large dip from 36.6% in 2022 to 27.1% in 2023. (Table 3) In 2023, only five of the 10 ASEAN members states had the most respondents indicating confidence in US leadership on this front – these were Cambodia (48.5%), Myanmar (52.2%), the Philippines (36.4%), Singapore (31.3%) and Vietnam (39.7%). Quite evident in the trends are the ‘Trump effect’ and ‘Biden effect’ which saw confidence in US leadership plunge during the Trump years and spike upwards following the election of Joe Biden.

Table 3: Percentage of survey respondents who had the most confidence in the following countries and/or regional organizations to provide leadership in maintaining the rules-based order and upholding international law

However, data also suggest that the pessimism about US leadership cannot just be attributed to the disruptive impact Trump had. The latest SSEA survey results suggest that the Biden effect has been short-lived. Confidence levels in the US have generally dipped sharply from their peak in 2022. In 2023, only three of the ten ASEAN member states had a majority of respondents having either full confidence or confidence in the US as a strategic partner and provider of regional security – these were Cambodia (76.9%), Myanmar (53%) and the Philippines (62.2%). Significantly, among the ASEAN6 countries – Indonesia, Thailand, Singapore, Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines – there has since 2021 been a steady decline in confidence in the US as a reliable strategic partner and as provider of regional security. The declines have been sharpest in Singapore, Vietnam and Indonesia (Figure 3).

Figure 3. Percentage of respondents who had full confidence or confidence in the US as a strategic partner and provider of regional security


But when forced to choose between China and the US, the region in general has expressed a growing preference to align with the US, a clear reflection of the growing anxieties regional countries have over China’s rise and perceptions of its growing assertiveness. In the SSEA 2020 edition which first posed the question “If ASEAN were forced to align itself with one of the two strategic rivals (the US or China), which should it choose?”, the answers were fairly evenly split – with 50.2% of the ASEAN-wide respondents choosing the US, and 49.8% choosing China.

Over the years, the region’s preference to align with the US has steadily strengthened – and in 2023, 61.1% of respondents said that ASEAN should align with the US, while just 38.9% chose China. (Figure 4)

Figure 4. Percentages of ASEAN-wide survey respondents who say ASEAN should choose the US or China if forced to align with one of the two strategic rivals

However, what is particularly significant about the 2023 survey is that only the Muslim-majority states in ASEAN picked China over the US – 53.7% of respondents from Indonesia said ASEAN should align with China, while among the Malaysians and Bruneians, 54.8% and 55% respectively indicated likewise. (Figure 4 a, b, c) Several factors probably account for this result. Firstly, the preference to align with China is likely a clear reflection of the perceptions of China’s growing economic influence in their respective countries. China has become the top FDI investor for all three countries. But also salient are the strong undercurrents of anti-US and anti-West sentiments in these countries, which are probably also shared among the elites and policymakers. These are driven by longstanding perceptions of the US bias against the Muslim world on hot-button issues like the Palestinian cause and resentment against US exceptionalism and perceived double-standards in global affairs.

Figure 4a. Percentages of survey respondents from BRUNEI who say ASEAN should choose the US or China if forced to align with one of the two strategic rivals

Figure 4b. Percentages of survey respondents from INDONESIA who say ASEAN should choose the US or China if forced to align with one of the two strategic rivals

Figure 4c. Percentages of survey respondents from MALAYSIA who say ASEAN should choose the US or China if forced to align with one of the two strategic rivals


These indicators telegraph a particular message to the US. They suggest that while there is still a reservoir of goodwill towards the US in the region, this is being depleted in some countries and cannot be taken for granted. The data also suggest that many ASEAN countries probably still hope that the US would exercise stronger leadership in the region especially amidst growing anxieties about the rise of China – but there is a clear undercurrent of pessimism and some disillusionment even amongst some of the US’ closest partners about US willingness and commitment to do so.

Over the years, when ASEAN respondents were asked whether they are confident that the US would “do the right thing” for global peace, security, prosperity and governance, more respondents in most countries would say that they were confident in the US rather than not confident. But it is clear that among the ASEAN6 countries, there have been significant drops in confidence in all six countries except the Philippines, where confidence in the US seems to be steadily rising (Figure 5).

Figure 5. Percentages of respondents who believe that US will “do the right thing” to contribute to global peace, security, prosperity and governance

Figure 6. Reasons why survey respondents who had indicated confidence in the US trust the US

Source: The State of Southeast Asia 2023 Survey Report, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute, p. 53

When asked why they trust the US, it is significant that ASEAN respondents in the 2022 and 2023 surveys overwhelmingly refer to the US’ power and resources, and not to the US’ political culture or worldview (Figure 6). It is also significant that the topmost reason why ASEAN respondents say they have little confidence in the US is their concern that the US is too distracted with its internal affairs and thus cannot focus on global concerns.

This suggests that one of the most important things the US can do to improve its credibility and stature in the region is to get its domestic house in order. And until it does, the US should also recognize which buttons not to press – values-driven foreign policy rhetoric cuts little ice, not least because it elicits cynicism and a backlash of criticisms about hypocrisy and double-standards. As the data suggest, the region is looking to US leadership not because it believes in US culture, values and worldviews but because of nagging anxieties about China’s rise and a hope that the US would still be able to bring its political, economic and military resources to bear and provide a balance of power in the region. Evidently, many in the region still want to see the United States strong again.


For endnotes, please refer to the original pdf document.

ISEAS Perspective is published electronically by: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute   30 Heng Mui Keng Terrace Singapore 119614 Main Tel: (65) 6778 0955 Main Fax: (65) 6778 1735   Get Involved with ISEAS. Please click here: /support/get-involved-with-iseas/ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute accepts no responsibility for facts presented and views expressed.   Responsibility rests exclusively with the individual author or authors. No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form without permission.  
© Copyright is held by the author or authors of each article.
Editorial Chairman: Choi Shing Kwok  
Editorial Advisor: Tan Chin Tiong   Editorial Committee: Terence Chong, Cassey Lee, Norshahril Saat, and Hoang Thi Ha  
Managing Editor: Ooi Kee Beng   Editors: William Choong, Lee Poh Onn, Lee Sue-Ann, and Ng Kah Meng  
Comments are welcome and may be sent to the author(s).


2023/41 “Vietnam’s Anti-corruption Campaign: Economic and Political Impacts” by Nguyen Khac Giang


Nguyen Phu Trong, a staunch communist theoretician, views corruption as the gravest threat to the regime’s survival. CPV General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong pictured here addressing the opening session of the newly-elected 15th National Assembly’s first parliament session in Hanoi on 20 July 2021. Photo: Nhac NGUYEN/AFP.


  • Vietnam’s current anti-corruption campaign, which led to the forced resignations of the state president and two deputy prime ministers in early 2023, is the most comprehensive anti-corruption effort in the history of the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV).
  • The campaign has had some positive impacts on the economy, including reducing the informal costs of doing business, streamlining bureaucratic processes in certain business sectors, and breaking down some entrenched interest groups to create a fairer business environment.
  • However, the campaign has also generated some negative consequences, such as slowdowns in the bureaucratic system and disruptions in critical services such as medical treatment and vehicle registration.
  • The campaign also helps strengthen the dominance of internal affairs institutions in Vietnamese politics and its effects may be felt in the CPV’s succession politics ahead of its 14th National Congress in 2026.

*Nguyen Khac Giang is Visiting Fellow in the Vietnam Studies Programme at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.

ISEAS Perspective 2023/41, 18 May 2023

Download PDF Version


In early 2023, an unprecedented shake-up in the Vietnamese political landscape unfolded. President Nguyen Xuan Phuc, along with two deputy prime ministers, were forced to resign due to their “political responsibilities” in two corruption scandals that rocked the country in 2022.[1] The Viet A test kit scandal involves the distribution of overpriced COVID-19 test kits,[2] while the repatriation flight scandal centres around exorbitant fees charged to Vietnamese citizens who were stranded abroad during the pandemic and who were seeking to return home.[3] This unprecedented move, with Phuc being the first among top-ranking leaders of the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) to resign due to performance reasons since Truong Chinh in 1956, marked a new high in the Party’s anti-corruption campaign, commonly known as the “Blazing Furnace” and overseen by CPV General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong since 2013.

Trong, a staunch communist theoretician, views corruption as the gravest threat to the regime’s survival and has vowed to conduct the campaign “without no-go zones and exceptions”.[4] Over the past decade, nearly 200,000 party members, including 36 Central Committee members and 50 military and police generals, have been disciplined.[5] Most notably, in 2018, Dinh La Thang, the former party chief of Ho Chi Minh City, became the first sitting Politburo member to be criminally charged; he was sentenced to 30 years in prison.[6]

With 7,500 individuals criminally investigated for corruption charges since the CPV’s 13th National Congress in early 2021, including 25 senior officials under the supervision of the Party’s Politburo and Secretariat,[7] the campaign is undoubtedly the most comprehensive effort in the CPV’s history to eradicate “bad roots” and to “purify” the Party, as Trong put it. This article examines the campaign’s key characteristics and its political and economic implications for the country in the short and medium term.


Corruption has been a persistent problem in Vietnam for many years, and is exacerbated by the one-party state’s inherent challenges, such as weak rule of law, lack of transparency and accountability, and a powerful politics-business nexus. Previously, the CPV tended to take a lenient approach to corruption, as it feared that exposing corrupt officials would erode its legitimacy and endanger the regime. As Nguyen Phu Trong once warned, anti-corruption measures must be carried out with caution, as they may lead to “throwing a mouse, breaking a jar” (Ném chuột vỡ bình).[8] As a result, members of the CPV Central Committee were rarely punished for corruption before 2016.

Notable exceptions include the 2006 PMU-18 scandal, which led to the resignation of Transport Minister Dao Dinh Binh (a Central Committee member) and the arrest of his deputy,[9] and the 2002 Nam Cam organized crime case which resulted in the arrest and eventual light sentencing of two other Central Committee members: Vice Minister of Public Security Bui Quoc Huy and Director of Vietnam Television Tran Mai Hanh.[10] In that case, then-Politburo member Truong Tan Sang was reprimanded for his lack of oversight, although he went on to become state president in 2011 when Nguyen Phu Trong was first elected as general secretary.[11]

That election marked a turning point, with Trong initiating a comprehensive overhaul of the country’s anti-corruption efforts. Following his successful re-election at the 12th CPV National Congress in 2016, he further accelerated the process, achieving substantial changes in the way the Party deals with corruption.

First, there has been a clear shift away from using government institutions towards using party institutions to address corruption. In 2013, Trong spearheaded the formation of the CPV-led Central Steering Committee on Anti-Corruption, which replaced the same agency under the government’s management.[12] Additionally, he re-established the Central Internal Affairs Commission, which, along with the Central Inspection Commission, provides the institutional capacity for the CPV to lead the anti-corruption campaign. The Ministry of Public Security, the campaign’s main executioner, has also been put under greater control by the Party chief. In 2016, Trong became the first general secretary to be a standing member of the Central Public Security Party Committee.[13]

Second, under Trong’s direction, the CPV has institutionalized rules and regulations to intensify the fight against corruption. Between 2012 and 2022, the main organs of the CPV issued over 250 documents related to party building and corruption prevention,[14] which were then formalized by other branches of government. Nearly 88,000 documents were issued during this period by ministries, sectors and localities, providing detailed regulations as well as implementation and organization guidance for anti-corruption procedures.[15]

Third, the CPV launched a widespread public awareness campaign against corruption, so that public servants “cannot, do not want to, dare not, and do not need to” (không thể, không muốn, không dám, không cần tham nhũng) commit corruption. This unprecedented campaign has improved public confidence in the CPV leadership and cemented Trong’s political position.[16] The CPV Propaganda Commission claims a 93% support rate for the anti-corruption campaign, though this figure cannot be independently verified.[17]


The anti-corruption campaign has yielded several positive economic impacts. First, according to the 2021 Provincial Competitiveness Index (PCI) survey conducted by the Vietnam Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the rate of businesses paying unofficial fees (i.e. bribes) has dropped significantly from 70% in 2006 to 41.4% in 2021, the lowest level in 16 years.[18] This indicates that the informal costs of doing business in Vietnam have decreased as a result of the campaign.

Second, in conjunction with administrative reforms, the campaign has streamlined processes for businesses and individuals. By cutting red tape, the government has improved the ease of doing business, attracting more investors and fostering economic growth. This is particularly important as Vietnam grows in popularity as a destination for foreign investments amidst the intensifying rivalry between China and the United States.[19]

Furthermore, the anti-corruption campaign has broken down parts of the politics-business nexus, especially in the property sector, thereby fostering a fairer business environment. At the local level, most corruption cases involve the sale of under-priced state-owned land to crony businesses.[20] In 2022, for example, former Binh Duong Party Secretary Tran Van Nam and former Ho Chi Minh City Deputy Party Secretary Tat Thanh Cang, both Central Committee members, were sentenced to seven and six years in prison, respectively, for their part in colluding with businesses to sell state-owned land below market value.[21] By limiting the influence of established interest groups in such cases, the campaign has provided opportunities for smaller businesses to thrive.


Despite the anti-corruption campaign’s successes, its rapid and aggressive approach has also generated negative economic consequences, such as a noticeable slowdown in the administrative process. This is due to public officials becoming anxious about being investigated and shirking their responsibilities. For instance, the disbursement rate of public investment in 2022 reached only 68% of its planned target,[22] and in the first quarter of 2023, more than 90% of central agencies and bodies and 30% of localities had a disbursement rate of under 5%, with 44 central agencies and bodies yet to disburse their funds.[23]

The fear of being drawn into anti-corruption investigations has caused many officials to hesitate in approving projects or licenses, leading to serious business disruptions.[24] For example, after a fatal karaoke bar fire occurred in Binh Duong Province, the Ministry of Public Security introduced tougher fire safety regulations for all businesses. The authorities required all karaoke bars to close until they met the new standards, but many owners complained that even after complying with the regulations, local fire police departments failed to approve their applications, driving them to bankruptcy.[25] In Ho Chi Minh City, only two out of 449 registered karaoke and bar businesses have had their applications approved, with 53 establishments still operating. The rest have gone bankrupt or have had their businesses suspended.[26] The impacts extend beyond the leisure industry, and many industrial manufacturers have also had to halt their operations because of the difficulty of complying with the new rules.[27]

At the same time, since 2020, an extraordinary 40,000 public employees have resigned,[28] amounting to a mass exodus from the bureaucracy. Among them, 89 officials out of around 500 staff left prestigious positions at the Government Office in 2022 alone.[29] Despite efforts to calm unsettled public employees,[30] this trend has persisted, leading to a weakened bureaucracy that affects the quality of policy making as well as the delivery of public services.

The repercussions of this issue go far beyond business and investment. In late 2022 and early 2023, Vietnam struggled with a severe shortage of medical equipment and supplies, mainly due to government officials refusing to approve procurement contracts.[31] Since October 2022, extensive investigations into the field of vehicle inspection services, coupled with the detention of around 400 personnel and vehicle inspectors, have caused the collapse of the automotive inspection system across the country. This breakdown has caused delays to the inspection of hundreds of thousands of vehicles.[32]

The anti-corruption campaign also has a cooling effect on the real estate sector and its related industries, which account for at least 16% of the country’s GDP. [33] Investigations have led to delays for many property development projects,[34] partly because some of the major property developers, such as Tan Hoang Minh, FLC, and Van Thinh Phat, have been targeted by the campaign. The lack of a clear framework for land pricing, coupled with local officials’ reluctance to take responsibility, are the main reasons, accounting for more than 50% of delayed projects.[35] The Ministry of Construction has revealed that the number of real estate companies going bankrupt in Q1/2023 increased 30% year on year, with 1,816 enterprises suspending their business, a 61% year-on-year increase.[36]


Internal affairs (nội chính) institutions, particularly those designed to maintain the Party’s internal stability and control the population, such as the Ministry of Public Security (MPS), the Central Internal Affairs Commission (CIAC) and the Central Inspection Commission (CIC), have gained greater political power thanks to the anti-corruption campaign. Notably, the 13th Party Congress saw as many as four of the ten “special exemptions” nominated for Central Committee membership hailing from internal affairs agencies.[37]

MPS, often regarded as the enforcer of the anti-corruption campaign, has been immensely empowered. The 2018 revamp of the police force, intended to consolidate the police establishment, has led to a higher concentration of power in the hands of the minister of public security. At the same time, the estimated budget for MPS has seen a steady increase, rising from VND73.6 trillion (US$3.3 billion) in 2016 to VND 96.15 trillion (US$4.37 billion) in 2021.[38] With the departure of Nguyen Xuan Phuc and Pham Binh Minh, five out of the remaining 16 Politburo members now have police backgrounds.[39] General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong considers MPS the “sword and shield” of the regime.[40]

In 2007, the CIAC had been subsumed into the Central Office of the CPV. It was however reinstated by Trong in 2013 in an effort to strengthen the anti-corruption drive. Since then, CIAC has become increasingly important in executing and overseeing anti-corruption initiatives. In 2020, the CPV Central Committee decided to elevate CIAC from a consultative body to an “operational institution” that specializes in the Party’s internal affairs and designated it as the “permanent agency” responsible for administering the Central Steering Committee on Anti-Corruption. The current leader of CIAC, Phan Dinh Trac, is the first CIAC head since 1976 to hold Politburo membership. This appointment is expected to set a precedent for future Party congresses.

The CIC serves as the primary agency responsible for supervising, inspecting and sanctioning wrongdoing by party members at all levels. During Nguyen Phu Trong’s tenure, CIC’s influence has grown significantly, as demonstrated by the numerous meetings held over the last three terms to discuss and announce disciplinary measures against senior party officials. In the 11th term (2011-16), CIC convened 37 meetings, and this number increased to 50 in the 12th term (2016-21). Over the past two years since the start of 13th term in early 2021, CIC has already held 28 meetings. CIC wields considerable power in deciding which cases are to be investigated and to what extent. According to one party insider, CIC is seen as the “guillotine” that instils fear in both state and party bureaucrats.[41]

As internal affairs institutions gain strength, technocratic agencies in the government such as the Government’s Office and economic ministries appear to be losing power. President Nguyen Xuan Phuc as well as Deputy Prime Ministers Pham Binh Minh and Vu Duc Dam were considered significant technocrats, but they have been replaced by less experienced party loyalists (Vo Van Thuong, Tran Hong Ha, and Tran Luu Quang, respectively). Initially, the military saw a boost in influence during the 13th Congress, but they have since been dealt a heavy blow by the anti-corruption campaign, with 20 generals being disciplined since 2016.[42]

Moreover, the institutional modifications implemented as part of the anti-corruption crusade are expected to have a major impact on Vietnam’s political landscape. The success of these measures is now seen as a key indicator of the performance of party secretaries,[43] leading provincial authorities and other party-state entities to prioritize internal affairs over other duties, such as economic development.

While it is easy to establish the predominance of internal affairs institutions, reversing this trend will be a formidable challenge once the leadership opts to temper the “Blazing Furnace”. The authoritarian inclination of the country’s political system is a worrying development in the long run, as it does not allow for independent voices on corruption issues. In late 2021, Towards Transparency, the Vietnam affiliate of Transparency International, a well-respected global NGO focused on combating corruption, was forced to close its Vietnam office due to security concerns.[44]

In the medium term, the anti-corruption campaign has major implications for the upcoming 14th Party Congress in 2026. The campaign has already removed two potential candidates for the top four positions, Nguyen Xuan Phuc and Pham Binh Minh, while providing opportunities for party loyalists such as Vo Van Thuong and Vuong Dinh Hue. It is likely that leaders of security and disciplinary agencies, including Minister of Public Security To Lam, CIAC Head Phan Dinh Trac, and CIC Chairman Tran Cam Tu, will be strong contenders for leadership roles in 2026.


Vietnam’s ambitious anti-corruption campaign has yielded both positive and negative outcomes. While successful in reducing corruption to some extent, the campaign has also led to significant disruptions in the bureaucracy, resulting in an atmosphere of unease in the political landscape. To improve confidence in private businesses, foreign investors and public officials, the relevant authorities will need to take immediate and targeted actions.

First, the party-state must prioritize rebuilding the effectiveness and accountability of its bureaucracy by increasing public salaries. Currently, the baseline monthly salary for a public employee is only VND1.8 million (US$80), and even the top leaders of the Party and government earn a mere VND23.4 million (US$1,060) per month in official salaries.[45] These meagre incomes make it difficult to incentivize top talents to stay in the system and contribute to the country’s growth, or to prevent corrupt practices.

Second, the anti-corruption campaign must be accompanied by a sound and transparent legal framework to guide the efforts, ensuring that they are conducted in a just and impartial manner. This is essential as the campaign risks becoming a witch hunt that can be exploited for political objectives and that can stifle creativity and progress within the regime. It is important to bear in mind that the Doi Moi reforms of the 1980s were inspired by various “fence-breaking” practices that could in the current political context be labelled as “economic mismanagement”. 

Lastly, harsh punishment alone cannot solve corruption in closed political systems like Vietnam’s. To effectively address this issue, the CPV must undertake a more comprehensive process of political reform that addresses the root causes of corruption, promotes transparency and accountability within the party itself, and provides opportunities for civil society, the media and the public to contribute. Solving corruption is not something the party alone can accomplish.


For endnotes, please refer to the original pdf document.

ISEAS Perspective is published electronically by: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute   30 Heng Mui Keng Terrace Singapore 119614 Main Tel: (65) 6778 0955 Main Fax: (65) 6778 1735   Get Involved with ISEAS. Please click here: /support/get-involved-with-iseas/ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute accepts no responsibility for facts presented and views expressed.   Responsibility rests exclusively with the individual author or authors. No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form without permission.  
© Copyright is held by the author or authors of each article.
Editorial Chairman: Choi Shing Kwok  
Editorial Advisor: Tan Chin Tiong  
Editorial Committee: Terence Chong, Cassey Lee, Norshahril Saat, and Hoang Thi Ha  
Managing Editor: Ooi Kee Beng  
Editors: William Choong, Lee Poh Onn, Lee Sue-Ann, and Ng Kah Meng  
Comments are welcome and may be sent to the author(s).


2023/40 “A Strategic Reset?: The Philippines-United States Alliance under President Marcos Jr.” by Aries A. Arugay and Ian Storey


US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin (R) speaking during a meeting with Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. (L) at the Pentagon in Washington, DC on 3 May 2023. Photo: Mandel NGAN/AFP.


  • The Philippines-United States alliance has been reinvigorated since Ferdinand Marcos Jr. was elected president in May 2022.
  • Marcos Jr’s US policy radically departs from his predecessor given his appreciation of the Philippines’ security vulnerabilities in the South China Sea and intensified US-China rivalry in the Indo-Pacific region.
  • Since Marcos took office, the two countries have increased the tempo of high-level interactions and military engagements. The US has pledged to increase its support for the modernisation of the Philippine armed forces.
  • However, an increasingly influential pro-China lobby composed of national and local politicians, pundits and media are acting in concert to undermine the initial revitalisation of the security cooperation between Manila and Washington.
  • The Philippines-US alliance needs to be more holistic and well-rounded. This can be achieved by integrating security cooperation with economic, diplomatic, and multi-sectoral initiatives to match China’s increasing economic investments in the archipelago.

*Aries A. Arugay is Visiting Fellow at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute and Professor of Political Science at the University of the Philippines Diliman and. Ian Storey is Senior Fellow and co-editor of Contemporary Southeast Asia at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.

ISEAS Perspective 2023/40, 15 May 2023

Download PDF Version


On taking office in June 2022, President Ferdinand ‘Bongbong’ Marcos, Jr. placed the Philippines-United States alliance front and centre in his foreign policy. The pace, scope and magnitude of changes have surprised many observers both at home and abroad given the anti-US rhetoric and stance of his predecessor, Rodrigo Duterte, and Marcos’ seemingly non-committal approach to foreign affairs during the election campaign.[1] Under the Duterte administration (2016-2022), America’s relations with its oldest security ally in Asia had deteriorated to the point that Duterte threatened to abrogate the US-Philippines Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), the legal framework that allows US military personnel to deploy to the Philippines for training and exercises.[2] And while Marcos Jr. ran on a campaign platform of continuing Duterte’s economic engagement with China, his apparent embrace of the US has further complicated the country’s position in addressing its most important strategic challenge: the intensification of Sino-US rivalry.

This Perspective analyses the transformation of Philippine-US security relations since Marcos was elected in May 2022. It argues that this strategic reset is a confluence of both domestic and exogenous factors. As the architect of Philippine foreign policy, the president has a significant role in setting the direction of the country’s security strategy and relations with external powers.[3] Apart from Marcos Jr’s desire to impose his imprimatur on Philippine foreign policy, the regional strategic environment has drastically worsened in recent years due to China’s aggressive policy in the South China Sea, which undermines the Philippines’ national security. As Marcos stated, “we are now confronted with a different and complex security environment, it brings with it new challenges that require us to adapt”.[4] In addition, Marcos has also sought to promote the interests of the Marcos dynasty by forging more cordial relations with the US.[5]


While on the campaign trail, Marcos ran on a promise of policy continuity, influenced by Duterte’s popularity and his ironclad political alliance with his daughter Sara Duterte.[6] For example, Marcos agreed to the Philippines’ neutral position regarding Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, despite it being a radical departure from the country’s consistent position against blatant violations of international law and the United Nations Charter.[7]

Yet, it is quite common for Filipino politicians to diverge from their campaign positions once in office, and Marcos demonstrated this on the foreign policy front. In a move that surprised the pro-Duterte flank of his political coalition, President Marcos proactively and cordially engaged the US. It should be noted that officials from the Biden administration had met with him extensively during the election campaign. The US was one of the first countries to congratulate Marcos on his electoral victory, something it declined to do when Duterte won in 2016.[8]

Marcos manifested a different interpretation of pursuing an independent foreign policy for the Philippines, one that is not necessarily anti-West or pro-China. Duterte’s revisionist rhetoric portrayed the US as an unreliable military ally and China as a generous neighbour and dependable partner. Marcos, instead, promoted a “new normal”, one that is open to pursuing strategic partnerships without reservations as captured in his “friends to all” foreign policy.[9] On the surface, this position could be driven by balancing competing domestic and external security priorities (i.e., dealing with communist insurgency and improving national defence) within the broader context of intensified great power rivalry in the Indo-Pacific region. To this end, Marcos moved quickly to pick up where his political nemesis -deceased former President Benigno Aquino-had left off, by reinvigorating the Philippines-US alliance.

In the 12 months since Marcos was elected president, Washington and Manila have signalled their commitment to alliance renewal in two important ways: regular high-level exchanges and dialogue; and increased military and security cooperation.

High-level Exchanges

Since Marcos was elected on 9 May 2022, the US and the Philippines have substantially raised the tempo of high-level exchanges. Senior officials from the two countries have talked or met on an almost monthly basis (see Table 1).

Table 1: US-Philippine High-level Exchanges(May 2022-May 2023)

President Biden calls President-elect Marcos11 May 2022Washington and Manila
Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman meets President-elect Marcos9 June 2022Manila
Secretary of State Antony Blinken meets President Marcos6 August 2022Manila
President Marcos meets President Biden22 September 2022New York
US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin meets Acting Philippine Defense Secretary Jose Faustino29 September 2022Honolulu
Vice President Kamala Harris visits the Philippines21-22 November 2022Manila & Palawan Island
Assistant Secretary of East Asian and Pacific Affairs Daniel Kritenbrink attends US-Philippines Strategic Dialogue18-21 January 2023Manila
US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin meets Acting Philippine Defense Secretary Carlito Galvez2 February 2023Manila
US-Philippines 2+2 Ministerial Dialogue11 April 2023Washington D.C.
President Marcos pays official visit to US30 April-4 May 2023Washington D.C.

Source: Media reports and US government read outs.

These engagements have provided both sides with an opportunity to reaffirm the importance of their alliance relations using language that Duterte himself never used. For example, when Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with President Marcos in June 2022, he called the Philippines an “irreplaceable ally”, while Marcos described ties as a “special relationship”.[10] Since taking office, Marcos has visited the US twice in September 2022 and April-May 2023 (Duterte never went once). On the first visit, President Marcos highlighted America’s key role in upholding the rules-based international order and freedom of navigation, asserting “I cannot see the Philippines in the future without having the United States as a partner. When we are in crisis, we look to the United States.”[11] On the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly, President Biden met with Marcos and reiterated America’s “ironclad” commitment to the defence of the Philippines under the 1951 Mutual Defence Treaty (MDT).[12] During Marcos’ second visit, President Biden reiterated America’s “ironclad” security guarantee to the Philippines, including in the South China Sea.[13] In response, Marcos said “It is only natural for the Philippines to look to its sole treaty partner in the world to strengthen and to redefine the relationship that we have and the roles that we play in the face of those rising tensions that we see now around the South China Sea, Asia Pacific and Indo-Pacific region.” Marcos was also able to secure pledges of economic investments from Washington amounting to US$1.3 billion that included nuclear energy, climate change mitigation, agricultural development and technology. President Biden also promised to send a first-of-its-kind Presidential Trade and Investment Mission to further explore economic investment opportunities in the Philippines.[14]

As well as declaring their commitment to the alliance, these meetings have provided an opportunity for the US to express its support for the Philippines’ maritime rights in its exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and to criticise China’s assertive actions in Philippine waters. The most striking example was during Vice President Kamala Harris’ visit to the Philippines in November 2022. She visited Palawan Island, the closest of the main Philippine islands to the country’s claimed atolls in the South China Sea. On Palawan, she met with fishermen, visited a Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) vessel and gave a speech in which she said the 2016 judgement by an arbitral tribunal (which ruled China’s nine-dash line claims to be incompatible with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea) must be upheld, and that “As an ally, the US stands with the Philippines in the face of intimidation and coercion in the South China Sea.”[15] The Marcos administration’s stance that the 2016 ruling is binding on China is a significant departure from Duterte who shelved the award. At the 2+2 meeting of US and Philippine defence and foreign ministers in April 2023-the first in seven years- the two sides expressed “strong objections” to China’s unlawful maritime claims and provocative behaviour in the South China Sea, and called on Beijing to fully comply with the 2016 arbitral tribunal ruling.[16] Following the most recent Sino-Philippine incident on 23 April 2023-when two Chinese coast guard vessels almost collided with two Philippine vessels near Second Thomas Shoal-the US State Department called on Beijing to “desist from its provocative and unsafe conduct”.[17]

Defence Cooperation

Despite President Duterte’s disparaging of the US-Philippine alliance, security cooperation between the two countries continued between 2016 and 2022, including combined exercises (which were scaled-down, partly on Duterte’s orders, but also because of the COVID-19 pandemic), military education programmes and defence sales. But under President Marcos, the pace and scope of bilateral military cooperation has been ramped up significantly.

The frequency and size of US-Philippine military exercises have increased over the past 12 months. In 2023, 496 bilateral military engagements are planned, up from 461 in 2022, 353 in 2021 and 300 in 2020.[18] The 2023 engagements will also include a larger multilateral component with the participation of troops from other US allies such as Australia, Japan and South Korea. For example, the annual US-Philippine exercise, Balikatan, held on 11-28 April 2023, was the largest ever and involved 5,400 personnel from the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and 12,200 US troops, up from 3,800 and 5,500 respectively in 2022.[19] Over one hundred military personnel from the Australian armed forces also took part in the 18-day exercise, while Japan and Britain sent military observers. In October 2022, 500 Philippine Marines and 2,550 US Marines participated in Exercise Kamandag, as well as small contingents from the Japanese and South Korean armed forces. The multilateralisation of exercises is in keeping with the Biden administrations strategy of networking America’s alliances to improve interoperability in support of the ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific’ policy.[20] In addition to exercises, the US and the Philippines have announced they are planning to conduct joint naval patrols in the South China Sea, an initiative that Duterte nixed.[21]

The most significant development in alliance relations has been the decision to accelerate the implementation of the Enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement (EDCA). Signed in 2014 during the administration of President Aquino, EDCA allows US forces to rotationally deploy through, and pre-position equipment at, five designated Philippine military bases. Under Duterte, however, moves to implement EDCA completely stalled. To make up for lost time, the Marcos administration has not only made expediting EDCA a priority but also agreed to increase the number of facilities available to US forces from five to nine.[22] On 3 April, the location of the four new sites were revealed: one on Palawan Island and three in northern Luzon near the Taiwan Straits. The US has allocated US$100 million to upgrade military infrastructure at the nine EDCA bases.[23]

The Philippines has long been the largest recipient of US security assistance in Southeast Asia. Since 2015, the US Department of State has provided the Philippines with over US$463 million in security assistance for the purchase of military equipment, educational and training programmes, and peacekeeping operations. Since 2018, the US Department of Defence has provided an additional US$237 million in capacity-building support.[24] Since 2019, the US has approved the sale of 12 F-16 fighter jets, 48 Black Hawk helicopters, six attack helicopters and C-130 military transport aircraft. At the 2+2 ministerial talks, the US agreed to increase support for the modernisation of the AFP over the next five to ten years, including the transfer of drones, patrol vessels, and coastal and air defence systems.

President Marcos’ visit to the US in April-May 2023 led to further improvements in the alliance. For the first time, the two sides issued bilateral defence guidelines which serve as an update to the 1951 MDT. The six-page document recognised the changing regional strategic environment and specifically stated that contingencies in the South China Sea and/or involving attacks on non-military targets such as coast guard vessels were covered by the MDT.[25]


The renewal of the Philippines-US alliance is not without its domestic critics. It also poses problems for the Philippines’ relations with China.

In the Philippines, the alliance has always been a lightning rod for critics-often on the left-wing of the political spectrum-of the country’s foreign policy, and particularly the Philippines’ relations with its former colonial power, the US. America’s military presence in the Philippines -especially the major US bases from 1947 until 1992, but also the deployment of counter-terrorism advisors in the south of the country post-9/11-has been criticised as a violation of Philippine sovereignty, a symbol of Washington’s neo-colonial relationship with Manila, and a source of social ills including crime and prostitution. EDCA has provided a new source of disquiet. While the US has insisted that the rotational deployment of US forces through the EDCA bases is for the purpose of conducting exercises, training and disaster relief activities, critics have argued that in reality they would be used for logistical support in the event of a US-China military contingency in the Taiwan Straits, especially the three new EDCA facilities announced on 3 April which are located in northern Luzon close to the Taiwan Straits.

In September 2022, Philippine Ambassador to the US, Jose Manuel Romualdez, remarked that the Philippines would allow US forces to use its bases in the event of a Taiwan conflict “if it is important for us, for our own security”.[26] But critics of EDCA have warned that it would not be in the Philippines’ interests to be dragged into a Sino-US conflict over Taiwan. These critics include the president’s sister, Senator Imee Marcos, chair of the senate foreign relations committee, who has argued that the new EDCA bases are driven by escalating tensions in the Taiwan Strait, and not developments in the South China Sea.[27] Others have accused Washington of including the Philippines in a US-led containment strategy of China, that would not only make the country a target of China during wartime but also undermine Sino-Philippine economic ties.[28] It was for that latter reason that the governor of Cagayan, where three of the new EDCA facilities are located, opposed their inclusion for fear of losing investment from China.[29] His objections were overruled.

China’s ambassador to the Philippines, Huang Xilian, doubled down on criticism of EDCA by linking the Taiwan issue to the presence of 158,000 Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) on the island. In a speech, Huang advised the Philippines to “unequivocally oppose ‘Taiwan Independence’ rather than stoking the fire by offering the US access to the military bases near the Taiwan Strait if you care genuinely about the 150,000 OFWs”.[30] This enraged the Department of National Defence and the National Security Council. Manila responded to the ambassador’s remark with a categorical statement that the Philippines firmly abides by the One China policy. Marcos also stated that perhaps the envoy’s comments were “lost in translation”.[31] As Filipino public opinion remains distrustful of China while supportive of the US, Beijing’s consistently aggressive stance is hurting its image.

EDCA has also become the whipping boy for China-friendly politicians who have invoked historical anti-US sentiments. In a Senate hearing, for instance, Senator Imee Marcos argued that EDCA heavily benefits US strategy while undermining the country’s strategic interests. She also warned that EDCA will anger China and increase the Philippines’ strategic vulnerabilities.[32]

Some commentators have called for EDCA not to be renewed when it expires in 2024.[33] This is unsurprisingly consistent with Beijing’s view as amplified by pro-China pundits and think tanks. The military, however, remains steadfast that EDCA is aligned with the modernisation of the AFP and its contribution with a more credible national defence posture.[34] In response to the criticism of EDCA, President Marcos has stated that the bases would not be used for “offensive actions”.[35]

Another potential challenge to the renewal of the alliance is the foreign policy preferences of future administrations, both in the Philippines and the US. Post-Cold War, the Philippines has had a tendency to “flip flop” in its relations with China, from accommodation (Presidents Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and Duterte) to a more hard-line position (Presidents Fidel Ramos and Benigno Aquino). If Marcos’ successor decides to prioritise economic relations with China over upholding Philippine claims in the South China Sea, as both Arroyo and Duterte did, US-Philippine military ties could once again be downgraded.

Similarly, a future US president could, like Donald Trump, pursue a more transactional approach to America’s alliances, or a more confrontational approach towards China, placing the Philippines in an uncomfortable strategic position. Ultimately, the future of the alliance is contingent on domestic political developments in both Manila and Washington.


The current revitalisation of strategic relations between the Philippines and the US is the latest episode in the oscillating nature of one of Asia’s oldest security alliances. This partnership remained impregnable even with the avowedly pro-China and anti-US President Duterte. Under Marcos, it did not take a huge amount of effort to recalibrate Manila’s defence posture despite China’s successful overtures to the government between 2016 and 2022. But sustained US and Philippine attention to the alliance necessarily means going beyond security matters given China’s increasing economic footprint in the country.

In a policy speech delivered in Washington D.C., Marcos emphasised that improving national security also entailed focusing on the economic growth and resilience of the Philippines towards which the US can make significant contributions.[36] Having a more well-rounded and holistic relationship will further enmesh the Philippines to the US given the possible impact of domestic politics in the future of Philippines-US relations. In the meantime, China will automatically heavily criticise and oppose any future moves towards a stronger alliance. Beijing may even impose punitive economic measures on the Philippines, such as introducing tariff barriers on Philippine exports and curtailing investment in the Philippines. So far, the Marcos administration’s strategic reset is influenced more by the country’s security interests than by China’s expected acerbic reactions or promised economic largesse.

While there are still lingering challenges, a stronger security alliance between the US and the Philippines is a reality that China must learn to live with.


For endnotes, please refer to the original pdf document.

ISEAS Perspective is published electronically by: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute   30 Heng Mui Keng Terrace Singapore 119614 Main Tel: (65) 6778 0955 Main Fax: (65) 6778 1735   Get Involved with ISEAS. Please click here: /support/get-involved-with-iseas/ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute accepts no responsibility for facts presented and views expressed.   Responsibility rests exclusively with the individual author or authors. No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form without permission.  
© Copyright is held by the author or authors of each article.
Editorial Chairman: Choi Shing Kwok  
Editorial Advisor: Tan Chin Tiong  
Editorial Committee: Terence Chong, Cassey Lee, Norshahril Saat, and Hoang Thi Ha  
Managing Editor: Ooi Kee Beng   Editors: William Choong, Lee Poh Onn, Lee Sue-Ann, and Ng Kah Meng  
Comments are welcome and may be sent to the author(s).


2023/39 “Perak and Islamic Education: PAS’ Gateway to the West Coast” by Mohd Faizal Musa and Afra Alatas


Considered a gateway to Selangor, the jewel of Malaysia, Perak is PAS’ new target and is a key state in facilitating the spread of their influence to the west coast. Facebook Page of PAS Perak at https://www.facebook.com/pasperak. Accessed 3 May 2023.


  • The Islamic Party of Malaysia (PAS) baffled many when it claimed the highest number of parliamentary seats after the 15th General Election (GE) in November 2022. The numbers indicate that their influence is no longer restricted to the east coast, but that they are gradually making inroads into the west coast, as evident from the gains they made in Perak.
  • While various factors may have contributed to the party’s success, one factor which observers may have neglected is their investment in Islamic education. It is however arguable that Islamic schools, whether formal or informal, are a platform for the party to rally Malay/Muslim support.
  • Focusing on Perak, this paper examines the role PAS has played in the politicisation of Islamic education. Through conversations with teachers, administrators and practitioners in the education sector, it was found that there are various issues which facilitate the spread of PAS’ ideological teachings in schools. These include the lack of regulation in certain types of schools, students’ indirect exposure to political issues, and loopholes concerning the license to preach in mosques.
  • Seeing that their ideological teachings and conservative ideas are potentially extremist and detrimental to Malaysia’s multi-racial and multi-religious setting, the paper proposes interventions to address the issue. These include the standardisation of hiring practices and syllabi in certain schools, and the need to revisit the idea of Sekolah Wawasan (Vision School) to encourage interaction across all educational streams, so as to limit inter-racial and inter-religious segregation and prejudice.

* Mohd Faizal Musa is Visiting Fellow at the Regional Social and Cultural Studies Programme at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute and Research Fellow at Institute of Malay World and Civilization (ATMA), National University of Malaysia (UKM). Afra Alatas is Research Officer in the same programme.

ISEAS Perspective 2023/39, 5 May 2023

Download PDF Version


The Islamic Party of Malaysia (PAS) has been gaining popularity in recent months, and this was especially evident in the electoral gains that the party made during the 15th General Election (GE) in November 2022. The elections saw Parti Keadilan Rakyat’s (PKR) Nurul Izzah Anwar lose her Permatang Pauh seat to PAS’ Muhammad Fawwaz. In January 2023, Fawwaz courted controversy in criticizing the open sale of alcohol in the state, with critics saying that he politicized religion and overstepped his role as Member of Parliament (MP).[1] His approach to such matters, and his victory in Permatang Pauh raises questions about the inroads that PAS might be making into Penang and further down the west coast.

In view of this, there have been discussions that the party’s rise can be attributed to the spread of ideological teachings in Islamic schools, particularly in the northern and eastern parts of peninsular Malaysia.[2] Given this context, it is crucial to pay attention to the role that political parties play in relation to Islamic education. For example, Ahmad Fauzi Abdul Hamid, a Malaysian scholar who has done extensive research on Islamic education in the country, states that the Sekolah Agama Rakyat (Community Religious School, SAR) “were believed to have come under the influence” of PAS through relations between members of the party and headmasters of the schools. These schools have played a “salient role” in ensuring support for PAS in the Malay heartland states of Terengganu, Kelantan and Kedah.[3] In fact, PAS themselves once proclaimed that their involvement in establishing Islamic schools has contributed to their position as the strongest opposition party in Malaysia.[4]

This paper will therefore look at the role of PAS in the politicisation of Islamic education. While it cannot be denied that PAS has a strong grip on the east coast states of peninsular Malaysia, it is arguable that their influence is no longer restricted to those states, and that it has spread to Perak. Considered a gateway to Selangor, the jewel of Malaysia, Perak is PAS’ new target and is a key state in facilitating the spread of their influence to the west coast.[5]

In order to understand the issues surrounding Islamic education and its politicisation, we conducted interviews with teachers, administrators, and practitioners from various types of Islamic schools in Perak, excluding the Sekolah Agama Kerajaan (Federal Religious Schools, SAK) and private international schools. It is noteworthy that the issue of PAS’ involvement in Islamic education and the perceived indoctrination for the purpose of political survival kept resurfacing during the interviews. Furthermore, our discussions found that the concern about politicisation and PAS’ increasing popularity was raised specifically in relation to the spread of extremist ideas which could be detrimental to Malaysia’s multi-racial and multi-religious society.


There are two key reasons for Perak’s significance. Firstly, as mentioned above, it was a key battlefield in GE15. PAS fielded Idris Ahmad, ideologue and former Minister for Religious Affairs, in Bagan Serai constituency. Alongside Deputy President Tuan Ibrahim Tuan Man, Idris is frequently touted as one of the men to replace the current party leadership. On the other side of the competition, Pakatan Harapan (PH) sought to secure the state by fielding Anwar Ibrahim—their prime ministerial candidate—in Tambun constituency. The presence of two strong candidates in Perak proved to be intense, with others stepping in to sow division. This was illustrated by the controversy surrounding Haji Razman Zakaria—Perak’s Leader of the Opposition for Perikatan Nasional (PN) and a member of the Perak State Legislative Assembly for the constituency of Gunong Semanggol—who publicly defamed Anwar and later apologized in the High Court.[6]

The rise of PAS in Perak should be studied within the context of the general rise of conservatism in Malaysia. This is important given that conservativism in the form of Salafi ideas has penetrated into Malaysian Islamic education. As Ahmad Fauzi noted in 2016, returning Islamic Studies graduates from countries like Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the United Kingdom, and even from local universities, have modified the curricula in schools which offer both formal and informal education. These modifications were made to include Salafi texts and teachings. Thus, since the mid-1990s, “the national religious education system has been more likely to produce ulama who subscribe to Wahhabi-Salafi theological concepts”.[7] This is of concern, as Salafi teachings tend to propagate conservative ideas on theological issues. In the Malaysian context, the spread of conservative theological ideas is alarming, as they could threaten inter-racial and inter-religious relations. Furthermore, if not effectively kept at bay, such ideas could develop into extremist ideas, whether physically violent or non-physically violent. It is therefore imperative to curb the spread of conservative ideas in Islamic schools, as it is what is being taught in schools that shape young Malay/Muslim minds. Several of our interviewees expressed this sentiment during our conversations with them.

This is linked to the second reason for Perak’s significance, which is that of the various types of Islamic schools found in Malaysia, Perak is one of the states in which most of these schools exist. Furthermore, all these schools exist in the Bagan Serai constituency.


The landscape of Islamic education in Malaysia is complex and layered. There are five types of Islamic schools at the primary and secondary levels. First are the SAK and Sekolah Kebangsaan Agama (National Religious Schools, SKA) which are fully funded by the government through the Ministry of Education (MOE).

Second are the Sekolah Agama Negeri (State Government Religious Schools, SAN) which are run by an individual state’s Majlis Agama Islam (Islamic Religious Council). The latest statistics from Jabatan Agama Islam Perak (Perak Islamic Religious Department, JAIPK) indicate that as of 2022, there are seven SAN secondary schools registered in the state, an increase from three in 2018.[8] Additionally, there are afternoon schools dedicated to Kelas Al-Qur’an dan Fardhu Ain (Qur’an and Fardhu Ain Classes, KAFA) and Kelas Al-Qur’an dan Fardhu Ain Integrasi (Qur’an and Fardhu Ain Integration Class, KAFAI) which are also highly regulated by the state religious administrations. These classes are part of a programme to strengthen Islamic education and knowledge by emphasizing on reading skills of the Qur’an and awareness of the obligatory acts which Muslims must perform. As of 2022, there are 663 KAFA schools in the state, a drop from 676 in 2018.[9]

Third are the SAR and Sekolah Agama Swasta (Private Religious Schools, SAS).[10] These are “independently managed but accept the use of the national curriculum so that their graduates can further their studies in formal institutions of higher learning”.[11] For example, there are such schools established by PAS, although loosely monitored by MOE. These include the pre-school level Pusat Asuhan Tunas Islam (PAS Islamic Preschool, PASTI), Sekolah Rendah Integrasi Teras Islam (Tertiary Integration Islamic Primary School, SRITI), Sekolah Menengah Integrasi Teras Islam (Tertiary Integration Islamic Secondary School, SMITI), and Sekolah Rendah Islam Bahrul Ulum (Bahrul Ulum Islamic Primary School, SRIBU). However, while these are private schools, they also receive partial funding from their state government. For example, the PH-led Penang state government has allocated a large amount of funds for these schools on an annual basis, despite them being run by PAS.[12] Statistics indicate that as of 2022, there are 39 SAR primary schools and 17 SAR secondary schools in Perak, an increase from 21 and 15 schools respectively in 2018.[13]

On the other hand, there are also community and private religious schools established by Islamic non-governmental organisations (NGOs) who actively use educational institutions to promote and spread their ideologies. For instance, Angkatan Belia Islam Malaysia (Malaysian Islamic Youth Movement, ABIM) is often regarded as the pioneer of modern Islamic education in Malaysia. They have established schools at each level of education, from pre-school to tertiary. These schools, which are all open to the public, include Taman Asuhan Kanak-Kanak (TASKI) for pre-schoolers, Sekolah Rendah Islam (Islamic Primary School, SRI), Sekolah Menengah Islam (Islamic Secondary School, SMI), Institut Pengajian Ilmu-Ilmu Islam (Institute for Studies in Islamic Sciences, IPII), and Institut Perguruan ABIM (ABIM Teachers’ Institute, IPA).[14]Another well-known Islamic NGO, Pertubuhan IKRAM Malaysia (IKRAM), runs its own private schools. These are Sekolah Rendah Islam (SRI) and Sekolah Menengah Islam (SMI) Al-Amin.[15]

The fourth type of school is the traditional or informal type, specifically the pondok and tahfiz schools which are monitored by state religious authorities. These are informal in the sense that they formulate their own curriculum and do not follow any formal standard. According to Ahmad Fauzi and Amran Muhammad, these tahfiz schools are also plagued by “Salafi-centric ‘direct scriptural reading’ methodology”, alongside a “puritanical and literalist understanding of Islam”.[16] Outside of schools, informal religious education also occurs in mosques. In contrast to the other types of schools listed above, it is the tahfiz schools which have increased the most in number. While there were 66 private tahfiz schools in 2018, statistics from 2022 show that there are now 91 schools. There was also a slight increase in pondok schools, from 16 to 21.[17]

Finally, the fifth type of school is the increasingly mushrooming private international schools which offer an Islamic studies curriculum. While these schools have their own sources of funding, they are regulated by the federal government.

Since their annual assembly in 1953, PAS has actively demanded that the federal government pay more attention to religious education. In that year itself, they demanded that the government provide students of Islamic Studies with scholarships so that they could further their studies. Later, in their manifesto for the 1955 GE, they focused on five demands from the government: (1) free lessons for all children; (2) compulsory religious classes for all Muslim children; (3) classes for adults on carpentry and the economy; (4) empowering Malay schools as mainstream schools; and (5) placing emphasis on moral education in the school syllabus.[18]

Following that, the launch of PASTI schools in 1984 garnered much attention, which was then followed by the establishment of various Islamic schools in the states of Kedah,[19] Kelantan,[20] Terengganu[21] and Pahang.[22] To further understand the effectiveness of PAS’ education planning it is worth noting that there are three departments within the party which are responsible for the education sector. These are Jabatan PASTI Malaysia (Malaysian PASTI Department) which was formed in 1984, Jabatan SRITI Malaysia (Malaysian SRITI Department) which was formed in 2015, and Jabatan SMITI Malaysia (Malaysian SMITI Department) which was formed in 2018.[23] All three departments have to report to 11 individuals in the Majlis Perunding Dasar Sektor Pendidikan (Policy Council for Education Sector, MPDSP) within the party.

In 2019, PAS’ education team presented a new set of strategic plans which addressed the scope, direction, and Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) which they termed “Must Wins”.[24] In charting a new direction for their schools, they stated that they aimed for the education sector to shape “righteous and intelligent” students, to encourage Malaysian students to choose Islamic education as their first choice, and to spread the message of Islam (dakwah) to the students’ parents. As part of the new roadmap, they introduced specific plans for their PASTI, SRITI, and SMITI schools, such as teaching Mandarin and Tamil in the PASTI schools, and teaching Special Subjects (Islamic Thinking, Movements, and Politics) in the SMITI schools.


Based on our interviews, it was found that there are at least three issues which affect the spread of conservative and possibly extremist ideas in spaces for Islamic education in Perak. The first issue we observed concerns the lack of regulation in some schools, such as tahfiz schools. While these are monitored by state religious authorities and require a license to operate, there is a lack of proper regulation in these schools. For example, the schools are free to hire teachers as they wish. These teachers may not meet certain requirements, and at times, come from outside of Malaysia. Furthermore, the schools set their own syllabi, thus creating room for teachers to speak about topics which border on political propaganda and extremist ideas. Consequently, the statements that they make may be detrimental to inter-racial and inter-religious relations. This point was mentioned by two of our interviewees, one of them being a top administrator at the Perak Education Department, and the other a teacher and member of Parti Amanah Negara (Amanah) in Perak.[25] For example, it was mentioned that when teaching the Prophet’s history (sirah) in class, some teachers make open-ended statements implying that non-Muslims in Malaysia are kafir—a derogatory reference to them.

However, the spread of such ideas cannot be easily curbed. Given that tahfiz schools only require a license, a building, and personal sources of funding to operate, it is fairly easy for them to be established. Furthermore, there is a thin line distinguishing the jurisdiction under which Islamic education comes. While education falls under federal jurisdiction, Islamic affairs fall under state jurisdiction.[26] It is thus debatable whether Islamic education could or should come under federal jurisdiction and be subject to greater monitoring and regulation. The issue of the lack of regulation also applies to the PASTI schools, whose teachers and administrative staff are PAS members.

The second issue that was observed relates to the indirect manner in which students are exposed to political or electoral issues. For example, it was recounted to us that in an Islamic school which receives assistance from the government, a teacher distributed calendars to her students. These calendars had a picture of Haji Razman Zakaria on them. Another example recounted to us was that students have been involved in extra-curricular activities such as performing in nasheed (performance of devotional songs) bands at events organised by PAS. These are therefore ways in which students are exposed to political propaganda or through which they may be conditioned to support a particular party.

The third issue concerns the influence from other states on religious discourse and affairs. For example, some interviewees shared that preachers and politicians from Kedah are invited to the mosques, which are sites of informal education. While the politicians legally do not have the tauliah (license) to preach in these mosques, the preachers, who are often party activists, do have the license to preach. While they are not permitted to touch on political issues during their sermons, there are still opportunities for them, together with the politicians, to talk about politics during moreh (mingling over food) sessions. This issue was raised by two of our interviewees involved in formal and informal religious education, one of whom is a village official in a mosque.[27]It was further shared with us that those who are invited from Kedah often spread political propaganda in favour of PN.

This issue is not helped by the fact that there is little control over who gets invited. This largely has to do with the Pengerusi Qaryah (a leader who is elected to oversee a few villages) who are responsible for maintaining order and serving as the middle man between state Islamic authorities and the Muslim community. They are also responsible for inviting preachers to speak in the mosque.[28] While the mosque imams are considered civil servants who are chosen and paid for by the state religious councils, the Pengerusi Qaryah are elected by the congregants. Often times, PAS and United Malays National Organization (UMNO) activists compete for the influential position. As a result of their different backgrounds and affiliations, it was shared with us that it is not unusual for there to be disagreements between the Pengerusi Qaryah and the imam about who should be invited to speak.[29]


Based on these issues, our discussions with the interviewees brought to light some possible interventions for dealing with the spread of political Islam and potentially extremist ideas in Islamic schools. The first intervention concerns regulation and standardisation. The Perak state government and religious council should only permit local preachers to teach in mosques, and to ban preachers from outside of the state. The federal government should also standardise the hiring practices and syllabus in tahfiz schools across the country, to ensure that extremist ideas are not taught in class. This is an issue which should be incorporated into the current government’s recent launch of the National Tahfiz Education Policy.[30]

Furthermore, in line with Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim’s call for schools to combat extremism in the classroom, it is recommended that the government include the topic of religious extremism in school syllabi to ensure that students understand what extremism is, and the threat that it poses. This can be implemented alongside Minister of Education Fadhlina Sidek’s announcement in December 2022 that her ministry is serious about tackling racism and extremism in schools.[31]

Another recommendation, suggested by one of our interviewees, is for MOE to consider former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad’s idea of setting up Sekolah Wawasan (Vision Schools).[32] Introduced in the early 2000s, his aim was for the school to integrate the national and Chinese and Indian vernacular streams and have the students attend one school together.[33] The current government could rebrand this vision (Sekolah Madani, perhaps) and bring together the national and vernacular schools, as well as the Islamic schools. This would encourage interaction across all streams and prevent inter-racial and inter-religious segregation and prejudice.

Finally, the government should address the issue of non-partisanship in its civil service; some of our interviewees shared that civil servants from MOE are not neutral and often align themselves with certain political parties. If this is not addressed, it could lead to the obstruction of reform and the implementation of new policies.

Despite the concerns raised above, all is not lost. Matters concerning Islam are a state matter and come under the purview of the Malay Rulers within the state. In fact, the Perak ruler, Sultan Nazrin Shah, has spoken about the dangers of extremism and racism on multiple occasions.[34] Other rulers, including Tunku Ismail, the Crown Prince of Johor, and Tuanku Muhriz, the ruler of Negeri Sembilan, have also warned against such dangers to society.[35] This is in contrast to states such as Penang, where the lack of a Malay Ruler may make it harder to intervene on issues concerning Islam. The Malay Ruler thus plays an important role in protecting not only Islamic affairs, but also inter-religious affairs in their individual states. In the case of Perak, it is crucial that the ruler continues to speak against the spread of extremist ideas, to protect the state from the politicisation of Islam, and to intervene in managing issues relating to Islamic education.

List of Abbreviations for Schools

  • PASTI: Pusat Asuhan Tunas Islam (PAS Islamic Preschools)
  • SAR: Sekolah Agama Rakyat (Community Religious Schools)
  • SAK: Sekolah Agama Kerajaan (Federal Religious Schools)
  • SAS: Sekolah Agama Swasta (Private Religious Schools)
  • SKA: Sekolah Kebangsaan Agama (National Religious Schools)
  • SMITI: Sekolah Menengah Integrasi Teras Islam (Tertiary Integration Islamic Secondary Schools)
  • SRITI: Sekolah Rendah Integrasi Teras Islam (Tertiary Integration Islamic Primary Schools)
  • SRIBU: Sekolah Rendah Islam Bahrul Ulum (Bahrul Ulum Islamic Primary Schools)


For endnotes, please refer to the original pdf document.

ISEAS Perspective is published electronically by: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute   30 Heng Mui Keng Terrace Singapore 119614 Main Tel: (65) 6778 0955 Main Fax: (65) 6778 1735   Get Involved with ISEAS. Please click here: /support/get-involved-with-iseas/ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute accepts no responsibility for facts presented and views expressed.   Responsibility rests exclusively with the individual author or authors. No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form without permission.  
© Copyright is held by the author or authors of each article.
Editorial Chairman: Choi Shing Kwok  
Editorial Advisor: Tan Chin Tiong  
Editorial Committee: Terence Chong, Cassey Lee, Norshahril Saat, and Hoang Thi Ha  
Managing Editor: Ooi Kee Beng  
Editors: William Choong, Lee Poh Onn, Lee Sue-Ann, and Ng Kah Meng  
Comments are welcome and may be sent to the author(s).


2023/38 “Jokowi’s High Approval Ratings Make Him Potential Kingmaker” by Burhanuddin Muhtadi


Mr Prabowo Subianto visiting President Joko Widodo on the first day of Lebaran on 22 April 2023 in Solo, Indonesia. Photo: (Facebook/Presiden Joko Widodo)


  • Jokowi has maintained high public approval, with a 73.1% approval rating in March 2023. The economy, perceived to be improving post-pandemic, is the primary source for his public satisfaction.
  • President Jokowi’s approval rating reflects the public’s opinion of his administration and affects the electoral fortunes of certain political parties and candidates. However, the relationship between satisfaction with Jokowi’s performance and party choice was not strongly related to the party’s position in or outside government.
  • Support for the PDIP, NasDem, Gerindra, Golkar, PAN, and Democratic Party correlates positively with satisfaction with Jokowi’s performance. In contrast, support for Islamic parties like the PKS, PKB, and PPP correlates negatively with the president’s performance.
  • Support for Ganjar Pranowo is positively related to President Jokowi’s public approval. Ganjar will benefit greatly if the public consistently evaluates Jokowi’s performance favourably. On the other hand, support for Anies is negatively related to Jokowi’s public approval, meaning Anies will benefit electorally if Jokowi’s performance declines.
  • Recent surveys indicating an increase in Prabowo’s electability as a presidential candidate cannot be separated from Jokowi’s support. Jokowi’s endorsement not only allowed Prabowo to survive the threat of the electoral support base collapsing due to the loss of Islamist votes to Anies, but also opened up new channels of support from Jokowi supporters.

* Burhanuddin Muhtadi is Visiting Fellow in the Indonesia Studies Programme at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute, and Senior Lecturer at Islamic State University (UIN) Syarif Hidayatullah.

ISEAS Perspective 2023/38, 4 May 2023

Download PDF Version


The level of satisfaction with the president’s performance (presidential approval rating) is a report card that describes the government’s success or failure in the eyes of the public. Similar to a report card, the value listed indicates the public’s perception of the government’s ability to address people’s concerns. The level of satisfaction also serves as a means to continue gaining the public’s trust and support. If it is good, the public will have more trust in the government and will support its policies. However, if it is bad, the government will receive public sanctions, and thus lower support to remain in power.[1] Moreover, in the period leading up to the end of Jokowi’s term as president in October 2024, he is expected not to issue any major policy changes and only focus on finishing his agenda and cementing his legacy.

Interestingly, even during the pandemic, President Joko Widodo (Jokowi) has enjoyed high public approval (Figure 1). Despite its slow and poor responses to the spread of the pandemic in the initial stages, the Jokowi administration still managed to maintain high public trust. Even the massive blow to the economy in 2020 did not shake the public’s perception of Jokowi much. According to the March 2023 survey conducted by the independent polling institute INDIKATOR, Jokowi has a 73.1% approval rating (Figure 1). If we put it in a bigger perspective, this high public approval is the second highest in the world among the leaders of democratic countries, as compiled by the Morning Consult’s Political Intelligence. Jokowi was only outpaced by Indian PM Narendra Modi in March 2023 with a rating of 78%. However, Jokowi’s approval rating is ahead of U.S. President Joe Biden and British PM Rishi Sunak, among others.[2]

Figure 1: Trends in Public Satisfaction with President Jokowi’s Performance (%)

Source: Indikator Politik Indonesia

The main factor explaining Jokowi’s stellar approval rating is the economy. The economic recovery is evident from the growth that began to move towards a better direction after Indonesia experienced its deepest contraction in 2020. Even then, Indonesia’s economic recession was a comparatively modest 2.1%, in stark contrast to the 13% in GDP collapse in 1998.[3] This modest contraction was largely due to government intervention, especially through social safety net policies and social assistance programmes.[4] Surveys also show that public satisfaction is due to the large proportion of voters who received social assistance.[5] The economic recovery went very well throughout 2022 and continues until the first quarter of 2023, with an estimated growth of around 5%, even amidst the threat of a world economic slowdown and global recession.[6] Aside from economic factors, Jokowi’s approval rating has also increased due to the government’s perceived success in handling the pandemic.[7]


In addition to serving as an indicator of the success or failure of the government, the approval rating for President Jokowi’s performance influences the support of political parties and 2024 presidential candidates. In this context, government-supporting parties may benefit from the president’s positive coattail effect. When the president’s approval rating rises, so will the level of support for government-supporting parties, and vice versa. The same logic applies to political parties not affiliated with the government. These parties’ vote share tends to be inversely proportional to the president’s approval rating. People dissatisfied with the government’s performance will vote for opposition parties. As a result, voting for opposition parties is expected to rise in tandem with a fall in the president’s approval rating.

However, empirical data are not so black and white. The correlation between the level of satisfaction with Jokowi’s performance and the party’s choice has not been strongly related to the party’s position in or outside government (Table 1). The correlation analysis of party choice and presidential performance in Table 1 shows that support for PDIP, NasDem, Gerindra, Golkar, PAN, and Democratic Party[8] is positively associated with satisfaction with Jokowi’s performance. Support for NasDem and PDIP obtained the highest correlation scores. In other words, the two parties’ support has grown significantly over the last three years, and if satisfaction with the President’s performance falls, so will the support for PDIP and NasDem.

Table 1: The Relationship Between Party Choice and Jokowi’s Public Approval (2020 – 2023)

A correlation analysis based on surveys conducted over the last three years also revealed a negative relationship between Jokowi’s performance and party choice, not only for the opposition party, PKS, but also for the two Islamic parties that are part of the government coalitional parties, PKB and PPP. In fact, the PKB correlation score is very high, roughly equal to the PKS correlation score (Table 1). This demonstrates that the relationship between Jokowi’s approval rating and political parties does not always follow a linear pattern. Support for a particular political party can negatively correlate with Jokowi’s approval rating, even if the party is part of the government coalition. This situation can arise, for example, if the party’s elite and lower-level base supporters share different goals.

Figure 2: The trend of national surveys (%), February 2020 – March 2023

Source: Indikator Politik Indonesia

Meanwhile, the correlation between President Jokowi’s approval rating and presidential candidate support is more apparent than the correlation with party electability. Presidential candidates perceived by the public to be close to Jokowi, whether due to similarities in political parties or leadership traits, tend to experience ups and downs in support that correspond to the President’s approval rating. On the other hand, a presidential candidate perceived to be in opposition to Jokowi faces ups and downs in gaining support that is opposite to the President’s approval rating.

The popularity of presidential candidates may or may not correlate with Jokowi’s approval rating. This is because each presidential candidate’s support base is different. It is possible that the support base for one presidential candidate is not overlapping with Jokowi’s support base. Furthermore, the perception of how close a figure is to President Jokowi is fluid. This is clear in the case of Prabowo Subianto. Figure 3 shows that Jokowi’s performance is in contrast with the pattern of support for Prabowo from 2020 to the end of 2022. Prabowo was Jokowi’s main opponent in the last two presidential elections. This means that previously, those who were unhappy with Jokowi voted for Prabowo. However, since Prabowo has joined the cabinet and recently received open support from Jokowi as a 2024 presidential candidate, many pro-Jokowi voters have warmed up to Prabowo (Figure 3).

In contrast, the support for Anies was initially consistent with people’s level of satisfaction with Jokowi. This was largely because Anies was Jokowi’s former campaign spokesperson in 2014 and his first-term cabinet member. However, Anies’ electability trend now appears to be the inverse of Jokowi’s approval, especially after the 2017 Jakarta gubernatorial election.[9] Anies’ electability was even lower when Jokowi’s support rose from December 2022 to March 2023, reaching around 73%.

The pattern of Jokowi’s performance evaluation is highly correlated to support for Ganjar. As a result, Ganjar will benefit greatly if the public consistently evaluates Jokowi’s performance favourably. Ganjar’s electability fell slightly in the March 2023 poll when Jokowi’s approval rating fell, though not so significantly.

Figure 3: Trends in the Support Patterns of Three Presidential Candidates and Satisfaction with the President’s Performance (%)

Source: Indikator Politik Indonesia


The high approval rating of Jokowi has positioned him as the kingmaker who can determine the choice of presidential candidates in 2024. Furthermore, in the most recent Indonesian Survey Institute (LSI) poll, conducted in early April 2023, satisfaction with Jokowi reached 76.8%.[10] Political parties are indeed responsible for presidential nominations, but as the president with seven parties supporting the government, Jokowi has a significant role in determining the presidential and VP candidates who will run in the 2024 Presidential Election. In addition, there was no dominant presidential candidate before the March 2023 survey, so Jokowi’s endorsement will influence electoral dynamics, particularly among Jokowi’s supporters.

The March 2023 INDIKATOR survey results show an interesting shift between the top three presidential candidates, Ganjar, Prabowo, and Anies, in relation to Jokowi’s move in endorsing Prabowo. The increase in support for Prabowo appears to be consistent in various simulations. Meanwhile, the other names tended to stagnate or deteriorate.[11] If there are three competing names, Ganjar continues to be at the top. Prabowo has grown stronger and is currently tied with Anies, who tends to see his electability weaken. Ganjar was chosen by 36.8% of respondents (down slightly from 37.4% in February), Prabowo with 27% (up from 24%), and Anies with 26.8% (down from 29.4%). Prabowo seems to be closing the gap with Ganjar.

What has boosted Prabowo’s electability in recent months? Given the downward trend in support for Prabowo since 2020 and even being overtaken by Anies in late October 2022, many parties are sceptical that Prabowo will be able to fight his two new rivals, Ganjar and Anies. But the trend shifted in November 2022, when Jokowi publicly declared his support for Prabowo as his successor at the Perindo anniversary event (Figure 4).[12] Since then, Jokowi has issued increasingly open statements in support of Prabowo and intensively invited him to some events.

Figure 4: Trend in Prabowo’s electability, 2022 – 2023[13]

Indeed, Jokowi has occasionally signalled his support for Ganjar. Still, they are wrapped in analogous languages,[14] whereas his support for Prabowo is relatively more open. Ganjar is a PDIP cadre, and Megawati has repeatedly reminded Jokowi, even in his presence at the PDIP’s 50th anniversary, that determining her party’s presidential candidate is her prerogative. Therefore, supporting Ganjar publicly would strain Jokowi’s relationship with Megawati.

Meanwhile, Jokowi has had no major difficulties in showing his support for Prabowo. Prabowo even appears to have enjoyed the backing of the President. He stated that President Jokowi might be educating him on leading the country, so he often invites Prabowo on official visits.[15]

So, what is the electoral impact of Jokowi’s endorsement of Prabowo? The left panel of Figure 5 shows that Jokowi’s endorsement has reversed the trend of declining Prabowo support among Jokowi’s 2019 voters. The solid line depicts Prabowo’s support trend before and after Jokowi’s endorsement, indicating a 2% increase in Prabowo’s electability among Jokowi’s 2019 voters. The dashed line represents Prabowo’s electability trend without Jokowi’s support. The number of Jokowi voters (who said Jokowi was their choice in 2019) in post-election surveys is generally higher than the actual election results, implying that the Jokowi endorsement effect is more significant than the estimate above. The March 2023 poll also revealed that the likeability of Prabowo had increased by 5% in recent months, owing primarily to Jokowi voters’ support.[16]

Figure 5: The intention to vote for Prabowo and the effect of Jokowi’s endorsement

The right-hand panel of Figure 5 shows no discernible effect from Jokowi’s endorsement among Prabowo voters in 2019. Even before NasDem declared Anies as its presidential candidate in October 2022, most of Prabowo’s voters in 2019 had shifted to Anies. This demonstrates that regardless of Jokowi’s support, Prabowo has lost a portion of his support base, particularly in conservative Muslim circles. This is because he joined Jokowi’s cabinet as Minister of Defense. What’s left is Prabowo’s core voter base. However, as depicted in the graph, the effect of Jokowi’s endorsement on Prabowo’s voters in 2019 was negligible. Jokowi’s support not only allowed Prabowo to survive his electoral support base collapsing due to the loss of Islamist votes to Anies but also opened the door for new channels of support from non-ideological groups supporting Jokowi in 2019.


Jokowi’s support for any presidential candidate has a significant electoral impact. This effect, however, is highly dependent on Jokowi’s public popularity and competition among presidential candidates. If Jokowi can maintain his high popularity, he will significantly impact the 2024 presidential election. So far, if the President’s approval rating is high, Ganjar and Prabowo receive the most electability support. Anies, on the other hand, comes under pressure if Jokowi is able to maintain public satisfaction with his government. The latter explains why Anies’ electability has declined, even though he has recently been more active in campaigning after being named a presidential candidate by the NasDem in October 2022. Anies will find it difficult to sell a narrative of change in a situation where 73% to 76.8% of citizens are satisfied with Jokowi’s performance. He will struggle to win if he relies on anti-Jokowi groups because this segment of voters seems to be dwindling and becoming insignificant. He must also make inroads among Jokowi’s supporters to win, but Anies has already been framed as Jokowi’s polar opposite. Anies has a good chance if positive perceptions of the government deteriorate, particularly in dealing with economic issues.

The Ganjar and Prabowo camps cannot rely solely on Jokowi’s satisfied voters, since public satisfaction is limited. Nevertheless, the satisfaction with Jokowi’s performance will provide a hospitable environment for Ganjar or Prabowo’s support to grow. The problem is that Jokowi’s supporters are currently split between the two. Prabowo’s ability to retain his core voter base while simultaneously attracting Jokowi’s 2019 voters gives him an advantage in the current political landscape.

Moreover, the April 2023 LSI survey shows the development of a tectonic shift in electoral support after Indonesia failed to host the U-20 World Cup. In the simulation of the top three presidential candidates, Ganjar Pranowo experienced a significant decline from 35% in February to 26.9%, while Prabowo’s electability increased from 26.7% to 30.3%, while Anies remained relatively unchanged at around 25%.[17] Ganjar Pranowo’s statement of opposition of the Israeli national team’s presence was publicly perceived as the main culprit behind the cancellation by FIFA of the U-20 Football World Cup to be hosted in Indonesia. Some Jokowi-satisfied voters shifted their support to Prabowo because Ganjar was considered responsible for the failure of the U-20 World Cup, which could have become a legacy of Jokowi’s government.

Regardless of Prabowo’s recent momentum after Ganjar’s blunder, the current polling still shows that no presidential candidate can win the Presidency outright in one round (winning 50% plus 1 vote). But the momentum remains in Prabowo’s hands. If Anies does not advance to the second round, his supporters will back Prabowo. If Ganjar were to lose in the first round, his supporters would also favour Prabowo over Anies. If Prabowo fails, Ganjar and Anies will try to woo his support as the kingmaker in the second-round Presidential run-off. The endorsement of Jokowi has made Prabowo’s imminent third-time presidential run competitive once more.


For endnotes, please refer to the original pdf document.

ISEAS Perspective is published electronically by: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute   30 Heng Mui Keng Terrace Singapore 119614 Main Tel: (65) 6778 0955 Main Fax: (65) 6778 1735   Get Involved with ISEAS. Please click here: /support/get-involved-with-iseas/ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute accepts no responsibility for facts presented and views expressed.   Responsibility rests exclusively with the individual author or authors. No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form without permission.   © Copyright is held by the author or authors of each article.Editorial Chairman: Choi Shing Kwok   Editorial Advisor: Tan Chin Tiong   Editorial Committee: Terence Chong, Cassey Lee, Norshahril Saat, and Hoang Thi Ha   Managing Editor: Ooi Kee Beng   Editors: William Choong, Lee Poh Onn, Lee Sue-Ann, and Ng Kah Meng   Comments are welcome and may be sent to the author(s).


2023/37 “Is the US a Serious Competitor to China in the Lower Mekong?” by Hoang Thi Ha


The Mekong-US Partnership Page on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/MekongUSPartnership. This partnership was set up to promote the stability, peace, prosperity, and sustainable development of the Mekong sub-region through cooperation among Mekong partner countries and the US.


  • After decades of benign neglect, the US has increased its engagement in the Lower Mekong in the last decade, partly driven by the US-China competition.
  • The US’ strategic intent is to enhance the Lower Mekong states’ resilience to Chinese influence by supporting their “autonomy, economic independence, good governance and sustainable growth”.
  • Whereas China adopts a top-down, state-centric approach to Mekong cooperation, the US places emphasis on engaging local institutions, riparian communities, civil society and scientists to increase knowledge on the river’s ecosystem and empower voices from the grassroots.
  • China invests in building a comprehensive connectivity network with Lower Mekong states while the US focuses on building ‘soft infrastructure” to ensure environmental safeguards in large-scale transport and energy projects.
  • The US’ affirmative agenda helps cultivate enabling conditions in Lower Mekong states towards achieving a better balance between economic needs and sustainability requirements.
  • However, there are structural constraints that limit US geopolitical influence in the Lower Mekong: (i) The US Indo-Pacific strategy puts more emphasis on the sea than the land; (ii) The Mekong issues are environmental, developmental and governance in nature, holding little relevance for American military power; (iii) China’s economic influence in the region is far more prevalent than that of the US in terms of trade, connectivity, investments and integration in the regional supply chains; (iv) US emphasis on environmental protection and quality infrastructure does not always suit the political-economic imperatives of Lower Mekong governments and their corporate affiliates; and (iv) The democratic backsliding and authoritarian consolidation in Lower Mekong states has alienated their ruling regimes from Washington and driven them further into China’s embrace.

* Hoang Thi Ha is Senior Fellow and Co-coordinator of the Regional Strategic and Political Studies Programme at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute, Singapore.

ISEAS Perspective 2023/37, 3 May 2023

Download PDF Version


From the “river road to China” in the 19th century to the “hotbed of communism” and the “hottest war” during the Cold War era, the Lower Mekong (or mainland Southeast Asia)[1] has been historically intertwined with global politics, involving both China and further afield powers like France, Britain, Japan, the Soviet Union and the US. In the first two decades after the Cold War, there was an interlude of “strategic calm” among the major powers;[2] and with it, economic integration and connectivity building were put at the forefront of international relations in the sub-region. A “crowded field” of development- and economy-centric sub-regional mechanisms with “considerable overlap” in their areas of priority and focus emerged[3] – some involving only the riparian states and others sponsored by extra-regional powers such as Japan, Republic of Korea (ROK), India and the US.

In the past decade, however, the Mekong River is increasingly framed in “apocalyptic” terms due to its accumulative environmental-ecological degradation associated with dam-building by the riparian states[4] while the Lower Mekong is increasingly viewed through the “geopolitical” lens of US-China competition. Environmental and developmental issues in the region are now overlaid with rising great power tensions, which in turn heighten the controversies and contestations over the use of the river’s transboundary water resources.

The discourse on the Mekong as “a new flashpoint of the Indo-Pacific” or “a zone of great power competition”[5] is often assumed rather than examined, especially with regard to the US’ strategic intent and the capabilities it can bring to bear in the sub-region. How important is the Lower Mekong to the US’ interests and strategy in Asia? What are the priorities in the US’ Mekong agenda? Is the US a serious peer competitor to China in this sub-region? This Perspective seeks to address these questions by examining the US approach towards the Lower Mekong and its structural constraints in juxtaposition with China as their contest for influence unfolds in the sub-region.


Mainland Southeast Asia was historically not on the US’ strategic radar, except when it was deemed as critical to America’s overriding goal of preventing any other power from “establishing exclusive hegemonic control over Asia and the Pacific”.[6] During the 2nd World War, US assistance to Viet Minh forces in fighting against Japan in Indochina was meant to complement Britain’s war effort in Southeast Asia. Washington then provided aid to French attempts to re-colonialise Indochina (1946-1954) on the grounds that such assistance was necessary to enable France to fulfill its security commitments in Europe.[7] Afterwards, American support for South Vietnam against North Vietnam, which eventually led to the deployment of millions of American troops in the 2nd Indochina War (1954-1975), was considered indispensable to its containment of global communism led by the Soviet Union and China.[8]

In the first two decades after the Cold War, Washington’s approach to mainland Southeast Asia was characterised by benign neglect and lacklustre engagement: its alliance with Thailand drifted as the strategic rationale of containing communism receded; Washington completely shunned the Myanmar junta regime; and Vietnam was “seen largely as a historical artifact by the Vietnam generation, or a great place for backpacking by the X generation”,[9] which also applied to Laos and Cambodia. During the Clinton administration (1993-2001), when engagement with China won the day and the West believed that liberal democracy was the final form of government for all nations, American engagement in the sub-region focused on promoting economic reform, political pluralism and human rights in mainland Southeast Asian states. Under the George W. Bush administration (2001-2009), Washington was pre-occupied with the global ‘war on terror’, and Southeast Asia – especially the largely terrorism-free mainland states – slipped out of its strategic radar.

Viewed through this long arc of history, the US’ increased engagement in the Lower Mekong in the past decade or so is a recent phenomenon. Its return to the Mekong sub-regional architecture first gained momentum under the Obama administration’s rebalancing strategy towards Asia-Pacific in which engagement with Southeast Asia was made a priority (2009-2017).[10] Some factors contributed to raising American stakes in the Mekong, including the improvement in US-Vietnam bilateral ties, Myanmar’s transition to democracy since 2011, which led to the lifting of American sanctions and made it politically palatable for the US to embrace Myanmar-included Lower Mekong cooperation, and US concerns over transnational challenges in the region, including environment degradation, human, wildlife and drug trafficking, and emerging infectious diseases.

In 2009, the US established the Lower Mekong Initiative (LMI) with Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam (CLMTV), with an annual LMI foreign ministers meeting and six cooperation areas: agriculture and food security, connectivity, education, energy security, environment and water, and health. Most LMI activities – with a total funding of US$120 million[11] – focused on providing technical assistance, human development, capacity-building, empowerment of youth, women and marginalised communities.

The US’ strategic interest in the Mekong increased during the Trump administration (2017-2021) as its competition with China intensified. 2020 was a high point of US engagement in the sub-region with US senior diplomats upping their criticisms of Chinese upstream behaviour and the LMI being upgraded to the Mekong-US Partnership (MUSP) with a view to becoming “more strategic, focused, and effective”.[12]

Other developments also converged in 2020 to deepen the nexus between hydro-politics and geopolitics in the Lower Mekong. First, Vietnam actively brought the Mekong issues to the world’s attention and sought to mainstream them into the regional agenda during its 2020 ASEAN chairmanship.[13] Second, international media reports and scientific studies increasingly shed light on the environmental problems and socio-economic ramifications of the Mekong River’s hydrological changes: its water levels in 2019 were at their lowest in more than 100 years and saltwater intrusion in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta region reached record highs in 2020. A notable development was the release of the Eyes on Earth report in April 2020  which says that “the severe lack of water in the Lower Mekong during the wet seasons of 2019 is largely influenced by the restriction of water flowing from the Upper Mekong during that time”, hinting at the impact of Chinese cascade dams on the river flows.[14] Using the report as an evidential basis, many US officials, including then Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, ratcheted up criticisms of China’s dam operations and the lack of transparency on its river water use.[15]

The Biden administration has maintained the US’ Mekong engagement through the MUSP and stepped up collaboration with other development partners. In 2021, the MUSP adopted its three-year plan of action (2021-2023) covering both multi-year programmes initiated during the previous administrations and new initiatives in pandemic response, climate change action and sustainable manufacturing. The Biden administration introduced the term “free and open Mekong”[16] to rhetorically align with its broader Indo-Pacific Strategy, which seeks to “advance freedom and openness and offer “autonomy and options””.[17]


The US’s vision for the Mekong sub-regional order is the reverse of that of China. Beijing’s strategic design is to bind mainland Southeast Asia into its orbit economically and geopolitically[18] whereas Washington’s vision is to support “integrated sub-regional cooperation” among the five mainland states and bolster their “autonomy, economic independence [emphasis added], good governance and sustainable growth”.[19] The US’ strategic intention is to enhance the Lower Mekong states’ individual and collective resilience to Chinese influence, which it considers “important also for the unity and effectiveness of ASEAN”.[20] The US approach to the Lower Mekong is, therefore, diametrically opposed to China’s, particularly in the following dimensions:

Bottom-up versus top-down: China adopts a top-down, state-centric approach to Mekong cooperation, focusing on leadership exchanges, policy dialogues, economic cooperation and development assistance to exert its influence over the ruling regimes of Lower Mekong states. The US approach, meanwhile, places emphasis on engaging and empowering riparian communities, civil society, conservationists, scientists, academia and local institutions so as to increase knowledge and information-sharing on the Mekong River’s ecosystem and amplify voices and perspectives from the grassroots level. This bottom-up approach helped create linkages between many American sub-national and non-governmental stakeholders with their Mekong counterparts (Table 1).

Soft infrastructure versus hard infrastructure: China has given multi-billion-dollar loans to finance infrastructure projects in the Lower Mekong, including highways, railways, bridges, ports, energy pipelines and power plants. Dam-building is the most controversial aspect of Chinese infrastructure financing in the sub-region: Apart from 11 Mekong mainstream dams and 95 tributary dams within its territory, China is a big investor in multiple hydropower projects in the basin. In order to strengthen Lower Mekong states’ capacity to meet financial and environmental safeguards in taking Chinese infrastructure loans, US development assistance to the region focuses on ‘soft infrastructure’ – i.e. to “strengthen public institutions, empower civil society, promote social justice and human rights, and support sustainable and inclusive development”.[21] US aid to the sub-region – which amounts to US$ 2 billion through bilateral and regional initiatives between 2010 and 2020[22] – mainly provides technical assistance and capacity building to promote good governance, transparency and standards of infrastructure building (Table 2). A telling example was US technical support in reviewing Myanmar’s infrastructure contracts in 2019, which reportedly led to the scaling-down of the China-funded Kyaukpyu deepwater port’s price tag from US$7.3 billion to US$1.3 billion.[23]

Internationalisation versus regionalisation: Under the banner of constructing a Lancang-Mekong River community of common destiny, China has utilised the LMC – which operates like a hub-and-spokes system – to promote exclusive cooperation among the six Mekong riparian states.[24] The Chinese approach of “regionalisation” stands in contrast with the American approach of “internationalisation” that seeks to engage and synergise with other extra-regional development partners.[25] The Friends of the Lower Mekong (FLM) under the LMI is rebranded as the Friends of Mekong (FOM) under the MUSP. Since 2020, the MUSP has sought to align its efforts with “those of other development partners, namely Japan, Australia, the ROK, and other Friends of the Mekong” (Table 3).[26] Given the US’ limited economic footprint in the region, forging such synergies with its friends and partners is pragmatic and necessary to bring about greater impact through joint action.

Securitisation versus de-securitisation: The US has been securitising the Mekong water issues by highlighting the negative environmental and socio-economic impact of China’s upstream dam-building for Lower Mekong states. This securitisation – defined as “the discursive construction” of the Mekong water problems as “security threats”[27] – was particularly dialed up during the Trump administration. Beijing meanwhile seeks to de-securitise the Mekong water issues by adopting a development-first approach to the Mekong water resources management, using the LMC’s top-leadership engagement to soft-pedal and suppress local environmental concerns, and promoting a positive discourse about its upstream dams as providing public goods for downstream states.[28]

MUSP versus LMC: The US-led MUSP and China-led LMC – with their respective strategic visions, guiding principles and cooperation priorities – signify the two powers’ contrasting approaches to the Lower Mekong (Table 4). For example, although “connectivity” is covered under both frameworks, the software-centric MUSP focuses on addressing the environmental impact of infrastructure projects, promoting sustainable energy systems and clean energy, and strengthening institutional capacity and legal-regulatory frameworks on transport connectivity in the sub-region;[29] the hardware-centric LMC meanwhile supports the development of a comprehensive connectivity network of highways, railways, waterways, ports and air linkages as well as power grids, telecommunication and Internet between China and Lower Mekong states to promote trade, investment and business travel.[30]

Table 1: Promoting Multi-stakeholder Governance in the US’ Mekong Initiatives

1US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE)/MUSP Sister Rivers Partnership, including the partnership between the Mississippi River Commission and the Mekong River Commission (MRC)To promote the sharing of best practices in water and river management through collaborative engagements and technical exchanges
2Wonders of the Mekong project involving the University of Nevada Global Water Center and the Inland Fisheries Research and Development Institute of Cambodia (funded by USAID)  To conduct applied research, capacity-building, outreach and communications to highlight the economic, ecological, and cultural values of biodiversity and ecosystem services associated with the Mekong River
3Mekong Water Data Initiative (MWDI) at MekongWater.org, involving over 60 organisations with over 50 tools (including the Mekong Dam Monitor) of river basin mapping and hydrology, weather forecasting, open-source data analysis and ecosystemsTo collect, analyse, and manage water and water-related data to promote sustainable water and natural resources management.
4Sustainable Infrastructure Partnership (SIP), a non-profit programme managed by Pact Thailand (funded by the US Department of State)To collaborate with academic and government agencies to improve skills and deliver tools for studying, monitoring and planning for wise use of Mekong water resources
5Mekong-US Partnership Track 1.5 Dialogue on Infrastructure and Energy, implemented by the Stimson Center and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (funded by the US Department of State)A series of track 1.5 dialogues to explore solutions to key policy and sustainability challenges facing the Lower Mekong
6Mekong-US Partnership Young Scientist Program (implemented by the Arizona State University)To foster collaboration, knowledge sharing and networking of young scientists in MUSP countries
7SERVIR-Mekong Program (supported by USAID and the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA))To use satellite technologies to support Lower Mekong states in addressing climate-related challenges such as disaster preparedness and response, water resource, and land management
8Connect the Mekong through Education and Training (COMET), implemented through the MekongSkills2Work Network – a group of universities, vocational colleges, and industry partnersTo better prepare youth for employment by bridging the gap between education institutions and employers and equip them with market-driven skills

Source: Compiled by author, based on public sources

Table 2: Promoting Infrastructure Building Standards in the US’ Mekong Initiatives

1US-Australia Mekong SafeguardsA multi-component programme that works with local governments, developers and communities to integrate environmental, social, and corporate governance standards (ESG) in energy and transport projects in Lower Mekong countries
2Navigating the BRI Toolkit platform – developed by the Asia Society Policy Institute and funded by the Ford FoundationDesigned with multiple Southeast Asian languages to support local communities and stakeholders in BRI host countries and China to ensure stakeholder engagement and environmental and social impact assessment (ESIA) in an infrastructure project
3Smart Infrastructure for the Mekong  A multi-component programme which provides training for hundreds of Laotian dam operators and Vietnamese local officials
4East-West Transport Connectivity Program (funded by the US Department of Transportation)To strengthen institutional capacity and legal and regulatory frameworks to support international best practices for transport connectivity

Source: Compiled by author, based on public sources

Table 3: US-initiated Mekong Partnerships

1Friends of the Mekong (FOM), including Five Lower Mekong states, Australia, the EU, Japan, New Zealand, the ROK, the US, the MRC, Asian Development Bank (ADB) and World Bank
2Japan-US Mekong Power Partnership, created in 2019 to promote a sustainable energy sector and quality energy infrastructure development in Lower Mekong countries
3US-ROK-MRC partnership on water data utilisation capacity building
4USAID and Australia Mekong Safeguards Program to accelerate sustainable infrastructure transition in the Mekong region
5US-Australia collaboration to support combatting transnational crime in the Mekong region
6Lower Mekong Regional Fish Passage – a partnership between the US and the Southeast Asian Fisheries Development Center, MRC, Australia, Japan, and Lower Mekong countries

Source: Compiled by author, based on public sources

Table 4: MUSP versus LMC

Strategic visionFor the autonomy, economic independence, good governance, and sustainable growth of Mekong partner countriesFor a community of shared future of peace and prosperity among Lancang-Mekong countries
Leaders’ meetingNoYes (biennial)
Foreign ministers’ meetingYes (annual)Yes (annual)
Senior officials’ meetingYes (annual)Yes (annual)
Working group levelPolicy Dialogue (at the deputy director general level)6 joint working groups for the priority areas
Dedicated fundNo – MUSP activities are funded on a programme-basis, drawing from different sources of US funding, most notably USAID and US Department of StateYes – the LMC Special Fund (US$300 million provided as Chinese concessional loans)
Guiding principles  Respect for ASEAN centrality, openness, transparency, good governance, equality, consensus, mutual benefit, respect for sovereignty, non-intervention, rule of law, international law, inclusivity, and rules-based frameworks  Consensus, equality, mutual consultation and coordination, voluntarism, common contribution and shared benefits, and respect for the UN Charter and international law Leaders’ guidance, government-guided, all-round cooperation, broad participation, project-oriented model
Synergies with other US/Chinese/ASEAN initiativesSynergies between the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific and the US Indo-Pacific vision Synergies and complementarities between the work of ASEAN and sub-regional cooperation frameworksSynergy between China’s Belt and Road Initiative and LMC activities and projects, as well as relevant development programmes of the Mekong countries, including the Master Plan on ASEAN Connectivity (MPAC)
Priority areas(i) economic connectivity, (ii) sustainable water, natural resources management, and environmental conservation and protection (iii) non-traditional security (health and pandemic response, transnational crime, cybersecurity, trafficking in persons, drugs, wildlife and timber (iv) human resource development(i) connectivity (ii) production capacity (iii) cross-border economy (iv) water resources cooperation (v) agriculture and poverty reduction

Source: Compiled by author, based on public sources


The US’ enhanced engagement in the Lower Mekong has amplified the voices of downstream communities, conservationists and scientists on the impact of economic activities on the Mekong ecosystem. US technical assistance and collective action with other development partners have contributed to strengthening the capacities of Lower Mekong states towards meeting environmental safeguards in infrastructure projects, especially dam-building. Washington’s increased attention also helped mainstream the Mekong into the regional agenda and put pressure on China to be more accountable and transparent in its upstream water management.[31]

However, there are structural asymmetries between the US and China that tilt the regional balance of influence in China’s favour. First is the “tyranny of geography” which conditions the importance of mainland Southeast Asia – or the lack thereof – in the two powers’ respective grand strategy: While the Lower Mekong is naturally China’s backyard and is therefore critical to China’s neighbourhood diplomacy and foreign policy, the US’ track record in the Lower Mekong indicates that Washington’s engagement in the sub-region waxed and waned subject to its strategic calculations vis-à-vis key US allies and opponents. Post-Vietnam War, the US approach to mainland Southeast Asia is better characterised as ‘offshore balancing’ than ‘deep engagement’,[32] and by its emphasis on the maritime rather than the continental domain. The maritime focus is manifest in the US’ Indo-Pacific strategy, a pillar of which is to consolidate alliances and partnerships with maritime democracies such as Australia, India and Japan while leaving the Eurasian landmass largely at the whims of two US strategic competitors, China and Russia.

Zooming in at the Southeast Asian theatre, “the focus in Washington on maritime competition with China misses the importance of the land”.[33] The US’ national security interest in Southeast Asia is to ensure its freedom of navigation and military access necessary for American power projection across the Indo-Pacific.[34] The South China Sea and the Mekong are often cited as two concurrent flashpoints of US-China rivalry in Southeast Asia but the latter does not hold the same strategic value to Washington as the former. Besides, while the South China Sea disputes present a conventional security situation where American military power could be brought to bear, the Mekong problems are environmental, developmental and governance in nature and do not warrant a military solution.[35]

In terms of economic influence in the sub-region, the US has been surpassed by China. China has strong economic relations with all Lower Mekong states across the full spectrum of two-way trade, multi-modal connectivity, tourism, investment, development aid and infrastructure financing. China is the biggest trading partner of all Lower Mekong states, the largest source of FDI in all except Vietnam, and the top source of foreign tourist arrivals to the sub-region.[36]  Meanwhile, the US economic footprint is hardly felt in Laos and Myanmar. The US is the largest export market for Vietnam, Thailand and Cambodia but China is coming close as the second. Although the US is the largest source of FDI to the ASEAN region, its investments are mainly concentrated in maritime Southeast Asia, especially Singapore.

More importantly, China and Lower Mekong economies are deeply integrated in the regional supply chains. All Lower Mekong states are members of the ASEAN-China free trade area (ACFTA) and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which have and will further deepen their economic interdependence. In contrast, the US is absent from all Asian multilateral free trade agreements; Thailand and Vietnam are the only two mainland states joining the US-led Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity (IPEF) that is still under negotiation and does not offer market access. Unlike big Chinese state-owned firms that actively ‘go global’ in infrastructure building, Corporate America stays out of this business, except in the energy industry. American investments in the region are driven by the private sector whereas the Chinese government exerts strong influence over Chinese companies and can bring them in line with the government’s economic statecraft agenda. These structural realities make China “more central to Asian political economy” and “more able to benefit politically from its private lending and private investment” than the US.[37]

Furthermore, the US’ emphasis on environmental protection and quality infrastructure does not necessarily dovetail with the prevailing political-economic interests and priorities of Lower Mekong countries’ governments and their corporate affiliates. The Laotian government considers hydropower – which accounts for 80% of its total installed energy capacity – the most important pathway to ensure its national energy security and earn export revenues from selling electricity to neighbouring countries, including Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Myanmar, Malaysia and Singapore.[38] In Thailand, local communities and environmental groups actively campaign against Mekong dam projects but the Thai government continues to buy more electricity from Laos while Thai banks and developers remain the largest investor in hydropower dams in Laos.[39] In Cambodia, despite a moratorium on new dam construction until 2030, the well-connected conglomerate Royal Group is seeking to revive a mega dam project in Stung Treng province, with some initial success thus far.[40]

Last but not least, political developments in Lower Mekong states in the past decade have swung the pendulum towards Beijing. The democratic backsliding in Thailand (post-military coup in 2014), Myanmar (post-military coup in 2021) and Cambodia (consolidation of power by the ruling Cambodian People’s Party and its effective marginalisation of opposition parties) have complicated these countries’ bilateral ties with the US. Alienated from Washington, their ruling elites have increasingly looked towards Beijing, which is willing to give them political-diplomatic support and development finance and to expand bilateral economic ties.

Among the Lower Mekong states, Vietnam appears to share deep environmental and geopolitical concerns with the US about Mekong upstream dams and Chinese strategic inroads in the sub-region. Yet, China can exert significant influence over Vietnam’s foreign policy-making through the institutionalised linkages between the Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP) and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The VCP has also been learning from the CCP’s party-building, development and governance model, and ways and means to preserve its political monopoly. As demonstrated in the 2022 visit by the VCP general-secretary Nguyen Phu Trong to Beijing, such close ties between the VCP and CCP provide systemic safeguards against Vietnam veering too far away from Chinese influence, and impose structural limits to the strategic like-mindedness between Hanoi and Washington vis-à-vis Beijing.[41]

The ongoing Myanmar crisis has exposed the political constraints faced by the US in bringing its multilateral Mekong agenda forward. In 2022, the MUSP ministerial meeting did not take place because the US did not wish for the presence of the Myanmar junta’s foreign minister, while all Lower Mekong states did not buckle under American pressure. In contrast, Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi flew to Myanmar to attend the LMC foreign ministers meeting in July 2022, making the first visit by a high-level Chinese official to Myanmar since the coup.[42] The LMC is the only Mekong sub-regional mechanism that had ministerial engagement last year as Japan, the ROK and India followed in the American footsteps. Such political grandstanding did not help the US gain any geopolitical mileage in the sub-region. Myanmar has the least stake in the Mekong ecosystem – its territory accounting for only 3% of the basin – but the US’ Mekong agenda is being held hostage by the junta’s action. 


The discourse on the Mekong as a new arena of US-China competition is bounded by the fact that the US is not a peer competitor to China in this sub-region in almost every measure. The US Indo-Pacific strategy places emphasis on constraining Chinese behaviour at ‘sea’ rather than on ‘land’. The US’ “advanced-nation-centred and ideal-oriented” approach to Lower Mekong development does not “necessarily lead to strengthening political and economic linkages between the US and Mekong countries”.[43] In contrast, China’s gravitational pull for these countries is not only a function of geographic proximity, extensive connectivity and the sheer weight of the Chinese economy; it is also driven by China’s long-term investment in deepening economic interdependencies with Lower Mekong states, and Beijing’s pragmatism in building relationships with their ruling regimes of all ideological stripes.

Viewing the Lower Mekong from the lens of geopolitics also obscures the spotlight on the primary responsibility of regional states in the use of Mekong water resources for economic gains at the expense of the river’s ecosystem and riparian communities’ livelihoods. In the final analysis, the choice for Lower Mekong states is not the one to be made between the US or China; rather, it is the choice about their own development path, which requires the balance between economic needs and sustainable requirements and the juggling between competing needs and agendas of different domestic constituencies. The US’ affirmative agenda so far has cultivated enabling conditions for regional states to make informed decisions towards achieving that balance. Contrary to the zero-sum logic of US-China strategic rivalry in other parts of Asia, their contest for influence in the Lower Mekong could potentially yield positive-sum outcomes for regional states.


For endnotes, please refer to the original pdf document.

ISEAS Perspective is published electronically by: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute   30 Heng Mui Keng Terrace Singapore 119614 Main Tel: (65) 6778 0955 Main Fax: (65) 6778 1735   Get Involved with ISEAS. Please click here: /support/get-involved-with-iseas/ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute accepts no responsibility for facts presented and views expressed.   Responsibility rests exclusively with the individual author or authors. No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form without permission.  
© Copyright is held by the author or authors of each article.
Editorial Chairman: Choi Shing Kwok  
Editorial Advisor: Tan Chin Tiong  
Editorial Committee: Terence Chong, Cassey Lee, Norshahril Saat, and Hoang Thi Ha  
Managing Editor: Ooi Kee Beng  
Editors: William Choong, Lee Poh Onn, Lee Sue-Ann, and Ng Kah Meng  
Comments are welcome and may be sent to the author(s).