The fourth edition of The State of Southeast Asia: 2022 Survey Report was officially launched on 16 February 2022 followed by a panel discussion on the key findings of the survey and implications for the region.
ASEAN Studies Centre E-Launch Event
Wednesday, 16 February 2022 – The ASEAN Studies Centre at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute officially launched its annual The State of Southeast Asia: 2022 Survey Report to an online audience from Singapore and overseas. Against the backdrop of the evolving COVID-19 pandemic and shifts in regional geo-political and geo-economic forces, the survey canvassed the views of 1,677 respondents from governments, research institutions, the private sector, civil society, media, as well as regional and international organisations. During the webinar, major survey findings were presented for discussion and analysis by a distinguished panel of experts.
In his Opening Remarks, Mr Choi Shing Kwok, CEO and Director of the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute and Head of the ASEAN Studies Centre, shared that the survey continues to provide important insights into the geo-strategic developments and challenges in the ASEAN region through the lenses of Southeast Asians. He noted that against the backdrop of the evolving COVID-19 pandemic, US-China strategic rivalry, and the Myanmar crisis, this year’s edition featured new questions on the perceptions of ASEAN’s responses to the Myanmar Crisis, the possible Chinese membership in the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) versus the US’ absence, the popularity of COVID-19 vaccines in the region as well as other regional developments such as the strengthening of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD) and the new trilateral security arrangement between Australia, the UK and the US (AUKUS).
This year’s survey also included several key questions from previous years, especially those related to the status of influence and leadership of major powers in the region, the perception of trust towards these major powers, and the extent of soft power in the region. With this year’s survey being the fourth edition, users now have the benefit of a time-series to observe the continuity of existing trends and the emergence of new ones.
Ms Sharon Seah, Senior Fellow and Coordinator of the ASEAN Studies Centre, provided a background and explained the methodology of the survey. A different methodology was employed in this year’s edition where a 10% weighted average was assigned to each country’s responses to calculate the average figure for ASEAN’s collective responses, ensuring that each country’s responses were represented equally given that ASEAN’s decision-making process is based on each member state having an equal say, despite the country’s population or size. To allow accurate comparative analysis, the same weighted average method was applied to the 2021 data for the various trend analysis questions in the survey.
Major Survey Findings and Panel Discussion
Mr Choi highlighted key findings from four major sections of the survey: Regional Outlook and Developments, Major Powers’ Regional Influence and Leadership, ASEAN in the Middle, and Perceptions of Trust.
Under the section on Regional Outlook and Developments, Mr Choi highlighted similar patterns to the previous year’s survey where the top challenges facing ASEAN are the COVID-19 threat to health followed by concerns of unemployment and economic recession in the second place and climate change as the new third place. On questions relating to the pandemic, he noted that there was an increase in the disapproval of governments’ handling of the COVID-19 pandemic while the mRNA vaccines remain the most trusted vaccine brand in ASEAN. Professor Chan Heng Chee, Ambassador-at-Large at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Singapore, stated that the survey clearly reflected the issues that Southeast Asians were most concerned about, namely, the prolonged pandemic and its economic impact. She highlighted that the perceived slowness of economic recovery, together with the pandemic’s psychological effect (sentiments shared by other panellists as well), may have accounted for the increase in disapproval of governments’ handling of the pandemic. However, she appreciated the efforts of ASEAN in combating the pandemic through the implementation of various initiatives such as the ASEAN Comprehensive Recovery Framework and the COVID-19 ASEAN Response Fund. The session also appreciated new questions on ASEAN’s response to the Myanmar crisis and noted that the Myanmar issue was now at the forefront of ASEAN’s discussion, overtaking other regional issues such as the South China Sea.
Under the section of Major Powers’ Regional Influence and Leadership, Mr Choi highlighted that China remained undisputed as the most influential economic power and political-strategic power in Southeast Asia. Respondents, however, were worried about China’s growing influence in the region. Professor Evelyn Goh, Director of Research at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, Australian National University, acknowledged the undeniable growth of China as a political and economic influence in Southeast Asia. She stated that the overdependence on China for investments and growth in countries such as Laos and Myanmar may have resulted in the growing anxiety of China’s influence in Southeast Asia. Professor Thitinan Pongsudhirak, Director of the Institute of Security and International Studies, Chulalongkorn University, also highlighted that the increasing fear of China’s influence by Myanmar’s respondents might be attributed to potential concerns over China’s support of the military government in the country. He identified this as a constant theme throughout the survey as Myanmar respondents were constantly critical of China in their responses. The session also noted interesting findings such as the leap in the region’s confidence in the US’ leadership in championing global free trade and in upholding international law. Similarly, thought-provoking discussion centred around the region’s positive views on the strengthening of the QUAD through practical cooperation and the spectrum of views surrounding the AUKUS arrangement.
Under the section on ASEAN in the Middle, in assessing ASEAN’s “non-choice”, Mr Choi noted ASEAN’s preference for the United States compared to China, where countries such as Myanmar, the Philippines, and Singapore expressed overwhelming support for the United States. The European Union and Japan remain the leading choices for ASEAN in hedging against the uncertainties of the US-China strategic rivalry. On that, Professor Chan identified the importance of ASEAN centrality in managing the influence of major powers in Southeast Asia, noting that ASEAN could be more relevant if it was united. Professor Zha Daojiong from the School of International Studies and Institute of South-South Cooperation and Development, Peking University, further added that ASEAN should not define itself as a vulnerable party against the major powers. By identifying the usefulness of frameworks such as the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), he stated that ASEAN was capable of managing itself against the influence of major powers in Southeast Asia.
Under the section on Perceptions of Trust, Mr Choi highlighted that China and the US experienced an increase in trust perceptions, while Japan, the EU, and India saw a decrease in their trust ratings. All countries except Japan saw their distrust ratings drop. A constant theme from the last survey, levels of distrust in China remain highest, with 49.6% of respondents concerned about the potential threat of China’s economic and military influence. The discussion delved into understanding country-specific data where Professor Thitinan noted that Myanmar respondents were becoming increasingly suspicious of China as they were worried about China’s support of the military government in Myanmar. He added that the overall increased trust for the US might be credited to the respondents’ increased trust in the Biden administration over the Trump administration.
The Q&A discussion touched on relevant issues, including the role of external powers in ASEAN, Japan’s and the EU’s declining influence in ASEAN, and ASEAN in the post-pandemic world.
The e-launch was attended by over 280 participants from the region and beyond.
Download the 2022 Survey Report here.