Signs showing the US flag and the Chinese flag can be seen outside a shop selling foreign goods in Qingdao, east China’s Shandong Province, on September 19, 2018.

AFP | Getty Images

SINGAPORE – Southeast Asia’s support for the US appeared to be growing after Joe Biden won the presidential election, according to an annual poll by the Singapore think tank ISEAS Yusof-Ishak Institute.

The Southeast Asia state poll released last week found that 61.5% of respondents are in favor of US bias versus China if the region is forced to choose either side. That is a 53.6% increase that picked the US over China in the same poll a year ago.

“The region’s support for Washington may have increased due to the prospects of the new Biden administration,” the poll report said.

The responses to the latest poll were collected from November 18 of last year to January 10 of this year – after Biden was supposed to defeat Donald Trump in the elections but before he was installed as president.

More than 1,000 respondents from all 10 member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) took part in the survey. Respondents include government officials, business people, and academic analysts, think tanks and research institutions.

When comparing data at the country level, a majority of respondents from seven Southeast Asian countries selected the US over China in the latest survey. This is an increase from three in the previous edition, with Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand switching sides.

Even so, most respondents chose China – versus the US, ASEAN, and others – as the most influential power in Southeast Asia.

Around 76.3% of respondents chose China as the most influential economic power, while 49.1% chose China as the most influential political and strategic power.

Meaning of Southeast Asia

Southeast Asia has been caught in the midst of competition between the US and China for the past few years.

The region is home to more than 650 million people and some of the fastest growing economies in the world. Proximity to the South China Sea – a major merchant shipping route carrying trillions of dollars in world trade – adds to its strategic importance.

The US has been an important presence in the region for many years through both security and economic engagements. During Trump’s tenure, the US withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership – a mega-trade pact that included several Southeast Asian countries – and senior American government officials were absent from some key regional summits.

This apparent lack of US interest in recent years coincided with China’s more aggressive push into the region through programs that included infrastructure investments under the Belt and Road Initiative.

However, the latest ISEAS survey found that the majority of respondents – around 68.6% – were optimistic that the US would step up its engagement in Southeast Asia under Biden. Compared to a year ago when 77% thought US engagement was going to wane, the survey found.

The region’s confidence in the US also rose from 30.3% a year ago to 48.3% in the most recent poll.

“Only time will tell whether or not the region’s renewed trust in the US is out of place,” the report said.

Initial signs have shown that the Biden government will focus more on the region in the coming years.

The president has strengthened his foreign policy team with experts on Asia, while US Secretary of State Antony Blinken – in an appeal with his Filipino counterpart – promised to “stand” with Southeast Asian countries against Chinese pressure in the South China Sea.