The fifth edition of The State of Southeast Asia: 2023 Survey Report E-launch event presented key survey findings that were analysed by discussants Prof Tommy Koh, Mr Shivshankar Menon, Ms Wendy Cutler and Prof Chen Dongxiao.
ASEAN STUDIES CENTRE E-LAUNCH
Thursday, 9 February 2023 – The ASEAN Studies Centre at the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute officially launched its flagship annual publication, The State of Southeast Asia 2023 Survey Report. The fifth edition of the Survey continues to provide meaningful insights into the region’s collective concerns, and the diversity of perceptions among the 10 ASEAN Member States on issues affecting the region. The online event was attended by 196 participants from the region and beyond.
In his Opening Remarks, Mr Choi Shing Kwok, CEO and Director of the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute and Head of the ASEAN Studies Centre, emphasised that the Survey continues to be the Centre’s most read and cited publication. Having been conducted annually since 2019, findings from the Survey serve as a useful time-series reference to observe the continuity of existing trends and the emergence of new ones, against the backdrop of geopolitical developments.
Mr Choi noted a number of recurring questions featured this year, including those related to regional influence and leadership of major powers in the region, trust perception, and soft power. He also highlighted new questions in this year’s edition to gauge the region’s perspectives on recent developments such as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and tensions in the Taiwan Strait, as well as new initiatives such as China’s Global Security Initiative (GSI), and the U.S.-led Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity (IPEF).
Survey Methodology and Respondents’ Profile
Ms Sharon Seah, Senior Fellow and Coordinator of the ASEAN Studies Centre, provided a brief overview of the 1,308 respondents who participated in the Survey, mostly online and through the Computer-Assisted Personal Interview (CAPI) method. Similar to last year, a 10% weighted average was applied to each country’s responses, to calculate the average figure for ASEAN’s collective responses. This was done to ensure that each country’s responses were represented equally, in line with ASEAN’s principle of decision-making. She noted that percentages of respondents from the ten ASEAN member states as well as the breakdown in affiliation from five key groups including the academia or research institutions; business; government; civil society or non-governmental organisations; as well as regional and international organisations.
Key Findings of the Survey and Discussion
Following the methodology, Ms Seah presented key findings from four main sections of the Survey: Regional Outlook and Views, Major Powers’ Regional Influence and Leadership, US-China Rivalry and Impact on Southeast Asia, and Perceptions of Trust. These findings were then discussed with a high-level panel moderated by Mr Choi.
Under Regional Outlook and Views, Ms Seah highlighted two categories of concern for Southeast Asians: the region’s ability to cope with international developments and the agility of ASEAN as an organisation. On the top three challenges facing Southeast Asia, she noted that bread-and-butter issues such as unemployment and economic recession ranked as the top concern, followed by intense weather events, and widening socio-economic gaps, tied with increased military tensions. In regards to the top three concerns about ASEAN, she highlighted that Southeast Asians continued to express their disappointment with the organisation, citing it as slow and ineffective. This was followed by worries about ASEAN becoming an arena for major power competition and ASEAN disunity.
Professor Tommy Koh, Ambassador-at-Large at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Singapore was of the view that fears of recession are misplaced in ASEAN. He mentioned that individually and as a collective group, ASEAN has done well especially in balancing economic and health concerns, calling it a “bright spot in a dismal world”, with a 4.6% projection of growth this year according to the Asian Development Bank. Professor Koh was also surprised about the negative perception of ASEAN being ineffective and slow, elaborating that consensus-making is a process that requires time.
Besides the closely-followed Five-Point Consensus (5PC) and ASEAN’s response to the Myanmar issue, Ms Seah presented several new questions that were asked in this section, which reflected the dynamic geopolitical developments of 2022. Questions included regional perceptions of tensions in the Taiwan Strait, Timor-Leste’s admission into ASEAN, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and the U.S.-led IPEF.
Panellists discussed their views on ASEAN’s response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Mr Shivshankar Menon, Former National Security Advisor to the Prime Minister of India, assessed that the organisation has responded very well, with a good track record of adapting in tough times. He noted that while ASEAN’s political response has been constrained, there is little that third parties can do to end the conflict. Ms Wendy Cutler, Vice President, Asia Society Policy Institute, agreed that despite ASEAN’s lacklustre initial response, it has strengthened over time, as demonstrated by Ukraine’s accession to the Treaty on Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia (TAC) last year.
Under the section Major Powers’ Regional Influence and Leadership, Ms Seah shared that China continued to be the most influential economic and political-strategic power, despite lesser overall support compared to previous years with a majority expressing concern about its growing regional influence. She noted that this year’s Survey featured a new question on China’s GSI, which a majority of respondents were not confident that it would benefit the region. Professor Chen Dongxiao, President of the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies, surmised that China’s decline in influence could be due to two reasons: China’s COVID-19 policies that have greatly constrained people-to-people exchanges over the past three years, and the growing engagement of other major powers with the region, such as Japan, the EU, and India.
Continuing the conversation on influence in the region, Ms Seah presented findings on US-China Rivalry and Impact on Southeast Asia. Similar to the findings of the last two years, respondents continued to favour the option of enhancing ASEAN’s resilience and unity as the best approach, while choosing sides was the least popular option. The U.S. maintained popular support with respondents perceiving an increase in U.S. engagement with the region during the Biden administration. When asked to seek out “third parties” in hedging against the uncertainties of the US-China rivalry, the EU ranked first, followed by Japan, and India – which was a significant jump from last year’s sixth place. Mr Menon underlined that ASEAN’s broader cooperation with countries other than US-China has helped maintain balance in the region. He provided instances where ASEAN-led mechanisms have promoted dialogues on challenging issues as well as positive initiatives such as Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (RCEP) that have increased economic predictability. Professor Chen also highlighted the importance of ASEAN’s convening power in bringing major powers together for constructive dialogues.
Under Perceptions of Trust, all countries surveyed saw an increase in trust percentage, with India recording the most impressive improvement, similar to findings from the previous section. Ms Seah was of the view that it could be attributed to India’s strategic autonomy, 2022 being the 30th Anniversary of ASEAN-India Dialogue Relations, and its G20 Presidency in 2023. During discussions, Mr Menon and Professor Koh both agreed that even with this increase, there is tremendous potential to grow ASEAN-India relations. Ms Cutler pointed out that even though the U.S. saw a decrease in distrust, this was not the case in Muslim-majority countries, which Professor Koh explained could be due to the unbalanced US policies towards Israel-Palestine. Lastly, vis-à-vis China’s ratings, Professor Dongxiao stressed that ASEAN and China both have an important role in making the region more inclusive, but also recognised that more can be done in terms of dispute resolutions such as those related to maritime issues.
The panel discussion closed with a Q&A session, which touched upon relevant issues such as economic engagement under IPEF, ASEAN’s relations with Australia and Japan, and moving the Myanmar issue forward – including through a proposed “Proximity Talks”.
To read the full findings, download the 2023 Survey Report here.