China saw a significant surge in popularity among respondents, with 50.5 per cent indicating that the Asian giant is their preferred choice of alignment compared with the US, up from 38.9 per cent a year earlier.

Conversely, the US saw a drop in popularity from 61.1 per cent last year to 49.5 per cent in the latest study.

China’s influence in the region was expected to “grow in the years to come if there is no balancer in the region”, said Sharon Seah, a senior fellow and coordinator of Asean studies at ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.

“However, China’s ‘popularity’ is not matched by soft-power influence. The level of trust in China to ‘do the right thing’ has dropped, while the level of distrust saw a slight increase. Among those who distrust China, the most cited reason has to do with the fear of China’s military and economic power being used to threaten countries’ sovereignty,” said Seah, one of the researchers in the study.

Nonetheless, it was worthwhile noting the shift in a “binary choice question” among respondents, she said.

Passengers ride a cross-border passenger train on the Chinese-built China-Laos Railway in September 2023. Photo: Laura Zhou
The shift towards China was “particularly evident” in Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Brunei and Laos, the study said, as these states had benefited from Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative. It found a 20 per cent increase in respondents’ preference for China in these countries.
The Philippines was an outlier, however, recording a significant increase in confidence in the Americans – primarily due to increasing tensions in the South China Sea.

“Its [Washington’s] backing from these countries has generally waned, except for the Philippines, which experienced a notable increase in confidence in the US, rising from 78.8 per cent last year to an all-time high of 83.3 per cent this year,” the study said.

However, this is a “variable and not a constant”, according to Chong.

“A lot will rest on what [China] does. Just as Beijing’s support for Russian aggression toward Ukraine raised questions about its willingness to support global stability and abide by established international law … any excessive behaviour in the South China Sea, towards Taiwan, in the East China Sea, or in support of North Korea is likely to diminish confidence in [China],” Chong said.

A Chinese coastguard ship fires water cannon towards a Philippine resupply vessel on its way to a resupply mission at Second Thomas Shoal in the South China Sea last month. Photo: Reuters

The region remains “pro-status quo” and any major power behaviour that “threatens to unsettle the status quo” is likely to be faced with scepticism, he added.

“Whatever benefits major powers may bring, excessive and/or unreasonable behaviour is likely to diminish trust. There will be recency bias as well as a negativity bias to such responses, especially if such action is seen to take away or threaten what Southeast Asian actors currently enjoy.”

The Israel-Gaza war has preoccupied the thoughts of respondents, the study found, with more than 46 per cent of those surveyed saying the war was a major concern for governments, with Muslim-majority countries ranking it as their top geopolitical concern.

More than half of Singaporean respondents also indicated the Israel-Gaza war was a top concern. But across the board, 41.8 per cent of those surveyed expressed concern that Israel’s assault on Gaza had gone too far, while close to one-fifth said they believed that Israel had a right to retaliate, subject to international law.

Only 8.8 per cent said that Israel had the right to retaliate as it sees fit. The survey also showed that 7.5 per cent of respondents believed Hamas’ attack on Israel could not be justified, while 5.8 per cent felt the opposite.

“While some states in the region support the position of maintaining a right of response to terrorist actions, there is a growing view that the proportionality of Israel’s response and the immense humanitarian cost that the response is exacting goes against the grain of international law,” Seah said.

People wait to receive food aid in the city of Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip, on March 30. Photo: Xinhua

While there was a religious element that influenced regional support for the Palestinians, the “growing humanitarian and human-rights violations are becoming a serious concern”, she added.

In addition to their concerns about extremist activities, many also mentioned diminished trust in the international rules-based order as a key issue.

“The ongoing Israel-Gaza conflict has emerged as a contentious issue in Southeast Asia, commanding significant attention in the region’s domestic politics. Despite its geographical distance, the conflict has reverberated strongly across this diverse multiracial and multi-religious region,” the study said.

About 27.5 per cent said their trust in international law and the rules-based order had been undermined by the war.

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Israeli forces open fire on crowd of Palestinians seeking aid,, as Gaza death toll surpasses 30,000

Israeli forces open fire on crowd of Palestinians seeking aid,, as Gaza death toll surpasses 30,000

However, conflict in the Middle East is unlikely to divide the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, analysts say.

“Asean states are aware of the differences and nuances in each other’s positions – as they did in the case of the Russia-Ukraine war where the implicit understanding is that some states are unable or unwilling to speak out against Russia due to historical or military ties,” Seah said.

“In the case of Israel, fellow members understand the same differences in position, and this is reflected in the Asean joint statement acknowledging the respective national statements.”

The willingness of the US to veto UN processes on Israel’s excesses in Gaza had led to a perception that it was “willing to give a free pass to friends, to the extent of distorting UN processes”, Chong said.

“Making matters worse is the possibility that giving Israel what looks like a blank cheque has the potential of destabilising the Middle East, fossil-fuel supplies, and global supply chains,” he said.

“That there is a serious presidential candidate who calls into question US alliances [with Southeast Asia] and other international commitments and is against more open trade further worries Southeast Asia,” Chong added, referring to former US president Donald Trump who is contesting this year’s election against incumbent Joe Biden.
Representatives vote on a draft resolution on the Israel-Gaza war during a UN Security Council meeting in New York on March 25. Photo: Xinhua

In March, the US toughened its stance on Israel, proposing a UN Security Council resolution that called for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza and an Israel-Hamas hostage deal.

Though the resolution was vetoed by Russia and China, it marked the first time Washington had supported a text that came up for a vote with the word “ceasefire” in it amid the conflict.

The US is one of five permanent members of the UN Security Council with veto powers alongside Britain, France, China and Russia.

Previously in February, the US vetoed a draft Security Council resolution calling for an immediate humanitarian ceasefire in the Gaza Strip. Of the 15-member Security Council, 13 countries voted in favour of the resolution, with Britain abstaining.

This marked the third US veto of a Security Council resolution demanding a ceasefire in Gaza, which came shortly after Washington circulated a rival resolution that would have supported a temporary ceasefire.