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Survey: China the Most Influential and Distrusted Power In Southeast Asia

Author: Hoang Thi Ha

Affiliation: Lead Researcher for Political & Security Affairs, ASEAN Studies Centre, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute

Organization/Publisher: The Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS) – Yusof Ishak Institute

Date/Place: 18 February 2021/Singapore

Type of Literature: Article

Number of Pages: 10


Keywords: China, Southeast Asia, Diplomacy, Covid-19




Despite being the most influential power in Southeast Asia, China is also the most distrusted power in the region. The State of Southeast Asia 2021 survey found that the distrust level of Southeast Asians towards China has increased since last year, from 51.5% in 2019 to 60.4% in 2020. In this report, the author shows how China lost its image in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and how its offensive charm strategies have not paid off. Following the outbreak of Covid-19 in the region, China took initial steps towards Southeast Asia with “mask and vaccine diplomacy.” China promised to strengthen its cooperation during the pandemic by actively sharing information and reinforcing medical goods’ distribution and encouraging research and development of medicine and vaccine. Furthermore, China has not only engaged in distance communication with their Southeast Asian counterparts, but they have also conducted several visits to ASEAN countries despite the Covid-19 travel restrictions. All these efforts that China has put into Southeast Asia are intended to promote its presence as a major power in the region and remove the “Chinese origins” stigma of the coronavirus. For Southeast Asians, Chinese supports in the pandemic situation are duly respected; however, this has done little to improve trust level towards China. One factor is that Southeast Asians consider China’s foreign policy in the region as undermining the sovereignty of ASEAN countries and constraining ASEAN countries’ foreign policy. For example, the tension in the South China Sea from China’s militarization, and the maritime encroachment in the exclusive economic zones and continental shelves of other littoral states are the main concerns for Southeast Asians in their relationship with Beijing. The author claims that the survey proves the limitation of China’s economic determinism in the region, which relies on China’s geography, history, and economic gravity. So although ASEAN countries strengthen their economic ties with Beijing, they meanwhile are looking for opportunities to maximize their strategic autonomy and diversify their foreign policies. Lastly, the author suggests that Beijing ought to reconsider its foreign policies in Southeast Asia and take a proactive step to resolve its ties with ASEAN countries; otherwise, China’s presence will become more unwelcome in the region.

 By: Salman Nugraha, CIGA Research Intern



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