Economy tops Southeast Asians’ concerns: ISEAS Survey

In place of the pandemic, economic concerns became the top concern, as 59.5 percent of respondents said they feared unemployment and an economic recession out of the pandemic.

A. Muh. Ibnu Aqil

A. Muh. Ibnu Aqil

The Jakarta Post


New look: People pose with the new logo of ASEAN as Indonesia officially assumes the group's chairmanship following a ceremony in Jakarta on Jan. 29.(AFP/Goh Chai Hin)

February 13, 2023

JAKARTA – Southeast Asians are preoccupied with the looming threat of global economic recessions, potential military tensions and a “slow and ineffective ASEAN,” the latest survey finds.

The 2023 State of Southeast Asia study conducted from November 2022 to January 2023 by the Singapore-based ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute asked a diverse set of questions to Southeast Asians on geopolitical and economic concerns, ranging from the Russian invasion of Ukraine, regional geopolitical tensions to United States-China rivalry and its impact to the region.

A total of 1,308 respondents from academia, business, government, civil society and the media across Southeast Asia share their insights in English, Indonesian, Khmer, Lao, Burmese, Thai and Vietnamese.

The survey was conducted as the COVID-19 pandemic would have entered its third year, but its shadows had started to dissipate as almost all countries in Southeast Asia had reopened their borders to trade and travel.

In place of the pandemic, economic concerns became the top concerns for Southeast Asians, the survey said, as 59.5 percent of respondents said they feared unemployment and an economic recession out of the pandemic.

Climate change has also become increasingly worrying for Southeast Asians, with 57.1 percent saying that more frequent and intense weather events are the region’s second biggest challenge.

Meanwhile, widening socio-economic gaps and increased military tensions were tied in the third top challenges the region faces, with about 41.9 percent of respondents saying so.

Southeast Asians are also still concerned that ASEAN is being “slow and ineffective” in responding to regional developments, with the Myanmar military coup entering its second year and geopolitical tensions by major powers have only intensified.

About 82.6 percent respondents say that ASEAN is slow and ineffective and cannot cope with political and economic developments, an increase from last year’s 70.1 percent.

People in the region are also increasingly feeling that ASEAN has become an arena for major power competitions and its member states at risk becoming proxies, with 73 percent saying so compared to 61.5 percent last year.

China continued to be seen as the most influential economic and political strategic power in the region at 59.9 percent but it was a significant decrease from 76.7 percent last year. Most are still worried about China’s growing regional economic influence. The numbers are almost static; in 2023 it was at 64.5 percent while in 2022 it was at 64.4 percent.

When asked if ASEAN was to choose between the US and China, most respondents preferred the former rather than the latter, at 61.1 percent and 38.9 percent, respectively in 2023. However, when assessed by countries, respondents from Brunei, Indonesia and Malaysia say that they prefer China over the US.

Commenting on the survey’s results, Director and CEO of ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute Choi Shing Kwok said the survey showed that the region remained open to both the US and China and the presence of other major powers.

“While not discounting that ASEAN itself can exercise greater agency to direct its own future in a more challenging environment,” Kwok said in a statement on Thursday. 

Also on Thursday, Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos hailed new defense and other deals signed with Japan in Tokyo, as nations seek to deepen ties, including on security in response to growing Chinese military pressure.

The countries agreed on measures to speed up military deployments for humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.

They also signed several other deals, ranging from infrastructure loans to cooperation on agriculture and technology.

“After our meeting, I can confidently say that our strategic partnership is stronger than ever, as we navigate together the rough waters buffeting our region,” Marcos said following talks with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, as quoted by AFP.

Japan is “one of the Philippines’ closest neighbors and closest friends,” Marcos told reporters.

His trip comes a week after the Philippines announced a deal giving US troops access to another four bases in the country.

Tokyo and Manila are also in preliminary discussions over a key defense pact that would allow them to deploy troops on each other’s’ territory for training and other operations.

Japan, which invaded and occupied the Philippines during World War II, has recently inked similar deals with Britain and Australia.

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