mandag 22. april 2024

No, Southeast Asians do not now prefer China over the US

The famed quip “There are three kinds of lies: Lies, damned Lies, and statistics” can be updated for the modern era with “confusion, damned confusion, and opinion Polls” in the wake of the 2024 State of Southeast Asia surveys of the region’s elites published this month by a think tank in Singapore.

The annual report by the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute has sparked some alarmist headlines. “Majority in Southeast Asia would choose China over the U.S., survey suggests,” Al Jazeera went with. Nikkei Asia intoned: “Majority of ASEAN people favor China over U.S., survey finds”. Guess what Chinese media ran with? “Survey shows Southeast Asians favor China over U.S”.

Was this actually what the survey revealed? Yes, but only if one takes only a cursory flick through its pages to copy and paste some regional averages. The headlines were mostly generated by replies to question 31, an annual feature of the survey, which asks respondents: “If ASEAN were forced to align itself with one of the strategic rivals, which should it choose?”

As a regional average, 61.1% of all Southeast Asian respondents said they’d pick the United States over China in the 2023 poll. This year, however, only 49.5% selected the U.S.. The 50.5% who said they’d pick China over the U.S. represents a 1 percentage point difference, notwithstanding the drop in U.S. favorability. In a survey in which pollsters interviewed 1,994 people, the difference between choosing China over the U.S. comes down to the opinions of about 20 people – perhaps not a reliable measure of how a region of 660 million people regard the most important geopolitical issue of the day.

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