E-Launch and Discussion of The State of Southeast Asia 2024 Survey Report

The sixth edition of The State of Southeast Asia: 2024 Survey Report was officially launched on 2 April 2024, followed by a panel discussion with Prof Danny Quah, Ms Bonnie Glaser, Prof Wu Xinbo, and Mr Shin Nakayama, on the key findings of the survey and implications for the region.

ASEAN Studies Centre E-Launch Event

Tuesday, 2 April 2024 – The ASEAN Studies Centre at the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute launched its flagship annual publication, The State of Southeast Asia 2024 Survey Report to an online audience from Singapore and overseas. The sixth edition of the survey continues to provide meaningful insights into the region’s collective concerns as well as divergencies in the national perspectives of the ten ASEAN countries, amidst rising geopolitical tensions around the region and the world. The survey captured the views of 1,994 respondents from governments, research institutions, the private sector, civil society, media, as well as regional and international organisations.

Opening Remarks

In his opening remarks, Mr Choi Shing Kwok, Director and CEO of ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute and Head of the ASEAN Studies Centre, shared that the State of Southeast Asia survey has been one of the Institute’s most-read and most-cited publication since its inception in 2019. The survey findings have garnered significant attention from policymakers, academics, and the media as they assess the impact of geopolitical events on the region.

Mr Choi Shing Kwok delivered the opening remarks. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

In addition to the popular questions such as those on the Myanmar issue, conflict in the Taiwan Strait, and the US-China rivalry, this year’s edition introduced new questions, including the impact of the Israel-Hamas conflict, China’s Vision of a Community with a Shared Future, dialogue partners’ strategic relevance to ASEAN, and expectations of the ASEAN Digital Economy Framework Agreement (DEFA).

Mr Choi highlighted that, with the benefit of six years’ worth of data, the survey would offer more extensive time series analysis to observe the durability of current trends and the emergence of new ones moving forward.

Introduction and Survey Methodology

Ms Sharon Seah, Senior Fellow and Coordinator of the ASEAN Studies Centre, provided a background and explained the methodology of the survey. She highlighted that this year, respondents were further screened based on their knowledge of ASEAN, along with their interest in current affairs. Similar to the previous year, a 10% weighted average was applied to each country’s responses to ensure that the responses of each country were represented by equal proportions.

Survey Findings and Discussion

Ms Sharon Seah presented key survey findings. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

Ms Seah presented key findings from four main sections of the survey: (1) Regional Outlook and Views of International Developments, (2) Major Powers’ Regional Influence and Leadership, (3) the US-China Rivalry and its Impact on Southeast Asia, and (4) Perceptions of Trust. The survey findings were then discussed in the panel discussion moderated by Mr Choi.

On “Regional Outlook and Views of International Developments” section, Ms Seah highlighted that unemployment and fears of economic recession, climate change and more extreme weather events, and intensifying economic tensions between the two major powers, were identified as the top challenges facing Southeast Asia. In a new question this year, the top three geopolitical concerns of the region are the Israel-Hamas conflict, aggressive behaviour in the South China Sea, and the Russia-Ukraine War tied with global scam operations.

Mr Choi inquired about the panellists’ assessment of ASEAN’s response to these regional concerns. Professor Quah noted that unlike other parts of the world which have used stabilisation policies to address unemployment, Southeast Asia has focused instead on long-term policies to promote economic growth. In the case of climate change, Professor Quah was of the view that focusing on long-term instead of cyclical policies was the right approach. Ms Glaser drew attention to the high concern about ASEAN’s ability to return to its pre-pandemic growth. She believed that this suggests a lack of confidence in ASEAN and in national governments to address unemployment, economic recession, and widening socioeconomic gaps. Mr Nakayama echoed Ms Glaser’s views and added that ASEAN’s policy coordination is still in its early stages. He also cautioned about the sustainability of populist policies, noting their prevalence in recent years and particularly during election campaigns.

Prof Danny Quah (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)
Ms Bonnie Glaser (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)
Prof Wu Xinbo (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)
Mr Shin Nakayama (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

On “Major Powers’ Regional Influence and Leadership” section, China remains the most influential economic and political-strategic power in Southeast Asia and is viewed as the most strategically relevant dialogue partner to ASEAN. Regarding the reasons behind China’s rising influence, Professor Wu was of the view that these sentiments were a result of China’s consistent efforts to improve diplomatic ties, political trust, and economic cooperation with the region. While acknowledging China’s growing influence, Ms Glaser emphasised that the results underlined the complexity of the region’s relationship with China, as evidenced by the growing concerns about China. Professor Quah agreed with Ms Glaser’s view that China’s higher influence – whether in terms of economic or political-strategic influence – is not synonymous with the region’s approval of China. Mr Nakayama added that ASEAN should be more self-reliant not only in navigating this situation but also in addressing other future challenges the bloc may face.

Under the “US-China Rivalry and its Impact on Southeast Asia” section, Ms Seah shared that in line with the past three years, regional respondents prefer that ASEAN enhances its resilience and unity to fend off pressures from the two major powers. Since the survey was first conducted, China has edged past the US to become the preferred major power if the region was forced to align itself with one of the two countries. She added that a majority of respondents expect that their country’s relations with China will improve but might be worsened by China’s growing economic dominance and political influence in their country, strong arm tactics in the South China Sea, amongst others. Those who were more sceptical of their country’s relations with China feel that the relations could be improved if China resolves all territorial and maritime disputes peacefully in adherence to international law.

On the binary choice between China and the US, Prof Quah stressed that the shift resembles more of a seesaw than a trend. He further highlighted the importance of focusing on the results of other questions to understand this change, for example why the EU and Japan continue to be viable alternatives for ASEAN. Ms Glaser added that the results showed the region’s disappointment in the US’ engagement and a desire for the US to do better.

The findings on the “Perceptions of Trust” section reveal that the surveyed countries (Japan, China, the EU, India, and the US) except Japan have experienced a decrease in trust and an increase in distrust levels. On the region’s distrust of China, Professor Wu mentioned that China always supports ASEAN centrality when cooperating with the region. He also was of the view that to address the region’s concerns, China should pursue mutually beneficial relations and most importantly, manage the South China Sea disputes, not merely as a maritime issue, but as an integral aspect of its long-term partnership with the region.

Regarding the EU, Professor Quah pointed out that despite the EU being admired for its stance on climate change, environmental issues, and human rights, ratings are fluctuating due to the security concerns of the Russia-Ukraine War and its own competition with the US on industrial policy. Considering the risk factors and other dynamics, Professor Quah assessed that Japan is a more reliable partner, due to its economic stability and technological advancements. Mr Nakayama agreed with Professor Quah and referenced Japan’s growing security cooperation with the region as a sign of mature relations. He provided examples of enhanced partnerships with the Philippines and Vietnam, the export of defence equipment, and joint military exercises with ASEAN member states. He noted that this presents a significant step, as Japan did not previously push for security cooperation due to the lingering legacies of war.

The panel discussion was followed by a Q&A session, addressing pertinent issues such as the diminishing influence of middle powers in the region, the ongoing disputes in the South China Sea, the impact of the Israel-Hamas conflict on regional perspectives of a rules-based order, and the region’s trust towards major powers, amongst other.

Close to 250 participants from the region and beyond attended the E-Launch of the State of Southeast Asia 2024 Survey Report.