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U.S. vs. China: Who Has The Most Influence in SEA?

U.S. vs. China: Who Has The Most Influence in SEA?

In recent years, Southeast Asia has become a strategic region for great powers to expand their influence. With a large population, this can be utilized by great powers to increase their influence. Among them are the U.S. and China, whose influence can be felt by countries in the region. 

China has expanded its sphere of influence in Southeast Asia at a faster rate than the United States over the past five years, according to a report from the Lowy Institute. The report analyzes data from the Asia Power Index, focusing on the comparative influence of China and the U.S. in the region between 2018 and 2022. 

The report shows that China has a 52% to 48% advantage over the U.S. in terms of influence in 2018, which increases to 54% to 46% in 2022. The dynamics of influence play an important role in shaping the strategic choices of Southeast Asian countries.

The Asia Power Index methodology assesses influence based on four categories: economic ties, defense networks, diplomatic power, and cultural influence. Since 2018, the U.S. has seen the largest decline in overall influence in Malaysia, mainly due to China's advances in defense networks and diplomatic influence. 

In Brunei and Indonesia, the U.S. has fallen below China. In Brunei, this shift is driven by China's advances in economic ties and defense networks, though partially mitigated by Beijing's diplomatic influence. Then, over the past five years, China has made significant advances in economic ties and defense networks in Indonesia. And although U.S. diplomatic influence in Indonesia is higher than other countries in Southeast Asia, it still lags behind China. 

The U.S. has also seen a significant decline in influence in the Philippines since 2018, mainly due to a decline in economic ties. If the U.S. economic downturn continues at the same pace over the next five years, China's overall influence is projected to surpass that of the United States. 

The decline in the U.S. economic relationship with the Philippines is evenly split between trade and investment indicators. The U.S. is becoming relatively less important as an export market for the Philippines. On the other hand, Philippine exports of goods and services to China have increased from about $12 billion in 2015 to more than $21 billion in 2021, while exports to the U.S. have increased only slightly.

By 2022, the U.S. has a weaker economic relationship than China in every country in Southeast Asia. The biggest difference is in Laos, where the US scores only eight points compared to China's 92. 

Even so, the strongest U.S. defense relationship is with the Philippines, where the U.S. leads over China. The US also has an edge in defense with Thailand as a U.S. treaty ally. This reflects the continued importance of the bilateral defense alliance to both countries. In contrast, China leads in defense with Cambodia.

In other sectors in 2022, China's diplomatic influence surpasses that of the U.S. in all Southeast Asian countries, highlighting China's intensive efforts in the region through its diplomatic network. Even so, the U.S. still has a slight edge in cultural influence, although its score declines in 2022 in every Southeast Asian country except Vietnam.

In the cultural sector, despite a decline in all Southeast Asian countries except Vietnam in 2022, the United States still has a slight edge in cultural influence in the region. Moreover, the United States has a stronger influence than China in the Philippines and Vietnam, which may be due to the anti-China sentiment in both countries. On the other hand, the Asia Power Index data does show that China has more people-to-people exchanges with Southeast Asia, especially through diaspora relations and tourism.

Overall, the report is able to show that China has made significant progress in expanding its influence in Southeast Asia, especially in economic relations, defense networks, and diplomatic power. 

However, the U.S. still maintains its lead in some areas, such as defense networks with the Philippines and Thailand and cultural influence in some countries. Overall, the dynamics of influence between China and the U.S. play an important role in shaping the strategic choices of Southeast Asian countries.

Source: Lowy Institute Report


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