When, how, and why do domestic politics shape Southeast Asian states’ relationships with China?

This is almost a trick question — not only the diversity of Southeast Asian political systems, but the multiplicity of interests that bear upon foreign policy within individual states makes mockery of the idea of ‘domestic politics’ as a single, coherent force.

A more manageable question might be: to what extent does public opinion set the terms on which Southeast Asian governments work with China?

If only it were easy to know exactly what Southeast Asian publics think about China. And then to know what influences their thinking. In Japan or Australia where the public is regularly interrogated on these questions, public opinion is hardly unfiltered from state and other interests.

In Southeast Asia, the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute’s State of Southeast Asia survey is an invaluable snapshot of elite opinion, but isn’t necessarily an accurate barometer of the ordinary citizen’s views, filtered or otherwise. While pollsters in the major electoral democracies of Indonesia and the Philippines occasionally take the temperature of voters on China, across the region polls are too infrequent, and methodologies too inconsistent, to be able to make generalisations about region-wide trends in public opinion.

As politicians disingenuously say, the only poll that matters is an election. Indeed, the best clues to how the public’s views shape the behaviour of national governments is via a close look at how China becomes an issue in election campaigns.

As Richard J Heydarian makes clear in this week’s lead article, all the ingredients for the politicisation of the China relationship are present in the Philippines’ elections coming up in May 2022. Since the election of the populist Rodrigo Duterte in 2016, ‘bilateral relations between China and the Philippines, a United States treaty ally, have undergone a tremendous transformation’. While going through the motions of amplifying public outrage over Chinese actions in the South China Sea, the Duterte administration has made soliciting Chinese investment in infrastructure and industrial development the focus.

Yet actual follow-through on projects to which Chinese lenders have pledged support has been underwhelming, and China continues to push the envelope in the South China Sea. Duterte’s critics accuse him of having cosied up to Beijing with little to show for it either on the South China Sea dispute or bringing economic transformation to the Philippines.

The criticism seems to have registered with the outgoing president. Now, ‘in his twilight months in office’, Duterte ‘has adopted a dramatically divergent tone on China’ as a majority of the contestants running to replace him distance themselves from the administration’s China policy. Only the current frontrunner Ferdinand ‘Bongbong’ Marcos Jr promises continuity with Duterte’s conciliatory approach; other candidates are promising a return to hedging, or to the pro-Western stances associated with the Philippine military establishment.

Duterte and his administration might have been defying political gravity in seeking close economic ties with Beijing while leaving the South China Sea issue unresolved, emboldened by the stratospheric approval ratings for Duterte and his brutal but popular drug war. As the country looks beyond Duterte’s ‘penal populism’, and to a more conventional president drawn from the Manila-based oligarchy, the politics of foreign policy might be reverting to the historical mean. ‘In the Philippines’ boisterous democracy’, Heydarian writes, ‘public opinion and the sentiments of the military reign supreme. Whoever succeeds Duterte will come under tremendous pressure to adopt calibrated assertiveness with respect to the South China Sea disputes, but also a measure of geopolitical pragmatism in relations with China’.

It’s a stretch to generalise from the Philippines to the rest of Southeast Asia. The Philippines is a US treaty ally, and there is ample public goodwill there towards the United States. The electoral system allows for a diverse field of presidential candidates who can win with a plurality of the vote. Elections are famously competitive, with candidates more incentivised to pander to public opinion rather than respect elite consensus on foreign policy.

More fundamentally, there are genuine and abiding differences within the political elite on how to balance the economic opportunities and security risks of China’s rise, and how to manage the relationship with the United States alongside this. The military, with its longstanding ties to US partners, is a key part of this conversation.

In short, the ingredients for the politicisation of the China relationship are present in the Philippines to a greater extent than elsewhere in the region — even in those countries that are at least minimally democratic.

In Malaysia, competition between internally-divided party coalitions has safeguarded a political consensus in favour of keeping Chinese investment flowing while quietly pushing back against the excesses of Chinese behaviour in the South China Sea.

In Indonesia, despite some politicians trying their luck with appeals to anti-China (and often anti-Chinese) sentiment around election times, there is a solid elite agreement about the economic benefits of a close economic and stable political relationship with China. And the military’s political lobbying is more focused on protecting its domestic institutional turf than steering foreign policy. A vocal minority of voters and civil society decry the purported impact of Chinese investment on Indonesian workers and Indonesian sovereignty, but a silent majority just want better infrastructure and jobs, unconcerned about whether these come with a helping hand from Beijing.

While there’s clearly much at stake for the Philippines’ China policy in the outcome of the May elections, it is far less clear that this is indicative of a deepening politicisation of China ties within Southeast Asia. To suggest otherwise, as with so many other things about the region, would be to generalise at one’s peril.

The EAF Editorial Board is located in the Crawford School of Public Policy, College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University.

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About the author

East Asia Forum provides a platform for the best in East Asian analysis, research and policy comment on the Asia Pacific region and world affairs.

Editorial Board, ANU

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