Jul 22, 2014

Asia - New survey reveals fear of conflict in Asia… and some unlikely alliances

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Philippine President Benigno Aquino III, right, and Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung showed a united front recently in their South China Sea claims recently. Pic: AP.

If you haven’t yet read the latest public opinion survey released by the Pew Research Center earlier this week, then it’s time you did. Based on interviews with over 48,000 people from 44 different countries in the last five months, the survey attempts to lend some perspective to the tit-for-tat manoeuvring and out-manoeuvring of the world’s leaders on Asia’s stage. Some of the findings are interesting, to say the least?

Life is too short to hold a grudge, right? This seems to be the case in Vietnam where it’s just taken the 36 years since the end of the Vietnam war in 1978 for the Vietnamese to forgive America and the seven billion tons of bombs they dropped on them and surrounding countries. In a survey carried out asking the Vietnamese public who they viewed as their greatest ally, America was number one with 30% of the vote. “The hell you say?” says a battle-hardened Nam’ vet.

In fact, out of the 11 Asian nations surveyed, eight of them chose America as their greatest ally, with South Korea (68%), Philippines (83%), and another nation that went toe-to-toe with big Uncle Sam, Japan (62%), scoring the highest. The three nations who hadn’t “cosied up” to America, were China (simply because they don’t have to), Malaysia, and Pakistan. The latter two voted China as their greatest ally, with China choosing Russia.

China, the neighbourhood bully of the Asia Pacific, strong-arming policy over other nations in pursuit of claiming/re-claiming territories, has left it not only isolated in Asia, but has pushed its neighbours into the warm embrace of the US. Under such circumstances it is not surprising that China, the largest economic and military power in the region, has named Russia as their greatest ally, but it still turned a few heads. Both nations have been known to throw a punch or two at each other in the past, most notably during border disputes in the 1960s. They are more, as The Economist refers to it, “frenemies” than anything else. Which makes the US-Vietnam relationship what then exactly? “Bitter frenemies”?

With a median of 49% of the 44 countries surveyed believing China will, or already has, taken over America as the leading world superpower, both nations are eyeing one another from their ringside corners. Who they are attracting into those corners can be vaguely seen through this survey.

The three Asian nations with the strongest support for America as their ally also viewed China as their greatest threat. Similarly, the only two Asian nations that saw China as their main ally also saw America has their greatest threat. As China’s brash foreign policy in Asia works to America’s gain; so does America’s policy in the states of Middle East and Northern Africa work in China’s favour.

A global median of opinions on America out of the nations surveyed, gave them a 65% affirmative vote. However, in the Middle East that vote was only 30%. Despite Pakistan and Bangladesh placing China as their key ally, perhaps the best gauge to measure China’s support in the Middle East is from the survey asking “does the Chinese government respect the personal freedoms of its citizens?”. Beijing’s restrictions on freedom of information and all religious practices, in particular that of Islam, which has been highlighted by the continuous repression of the mostly Muslim Uighur minority of the Xinjiang Province, and the restrictions against fasting for Muslims during Ramadan would make one think that other Muslim communities would answer a feverish “no” to this poll.

However, a large number of Muslim dominant countries voted in favour of China’s human rights record, and in high percentages too. Bangladesh voted 66% in favour, with 63% in Lebanon, 58% in Palestinian Territories, 54% in Tunisia and a further 50% in Jordan. Such results would suggest other factors are at play. China’s economic development in Middle Eastern countries, coupled with their non-interference policy (“I don’t tell you how run your country, so don’t tell me how to run mine” approach) in the domestic affairs of foreign countries, has raised their popularity in the region.

“The majority of the Arab world view China as politically disinterested,” said Professor Vincent Durac, a lecturer in International Politics of the Middle East at University College Dublin.

“China is non-threatening to the internal running of Arab countries, which is more than can be said of the US and Europe.”

So where are all these alliances, trade deals, presidential visits and placing of drilling rigs in disputed waters leading to? Eight out of the 11 Asian countries surveyed fear it will lead to military conflict with China, hence American support in the region. Out of those 11 nations, only two saw a fellow Asian nation as a dependable ally. Perhaps the best placed country of all, and possibly the most scheming at that, is Indonesia. Comically, they voted America as being their greatest ally, and also their biggest threat.

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