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In the competition for Southeast Asia influence, Japan is the sleeper

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It is difficult to appreciate Southeast Asia’s importance for Asia and the world as a whole.

A region once dismissed as a backwater of countries struggling to escape the legacy of colonialism, better known for its distractions than its dynamism, is now seen through a very different lens. It is the geographic nexus of the Indian and Pacific oceans, the literal heart of any Indo-Pacific concept. It straddles the ocean highways by which the region’s trade — trillions of dollars each year, and over 90 percent of Northeast Asia’s energy supplies — travels.

In 2017, the 10 members of Association of Southeast Asian Nations accounted for 7 percent of global exports, making it the world’s fourth-largest exporting region. Those countries have a combined population of 650 million people with a GDP that is almost $3 trillion; this year, its middle-class population will number about 350 million, with some $300 billion of disposable income to spend.

That growing importance has fostered an acute sensitivity to the views of Southeast Asian politicians and publics, and there is no better reading of their thinking than the annual State of Southeast Asia Survey Report, the 2020 edition of which was published last week by the ASEAN Studies Center at Singapore’s ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute. In a world that is increasingly consumed by U.S.-Chinese competition, that assessment holds out hope that Japan has an increasingly important role to play.

The bottom line of this year’s survey is that ASEAN is deeply divided when it comes to the competition between Washington and Beijing. A majority of respondents (53.6 percent) would choose the United States if forced to pick between the two countries. But a majority of respondents in seven ASEAN member countries — Laos, Brunei, Myanmar, Malaysia, Cambodia, Thailand and Indonesia — would pick China. That leaves large majorities in Vietnam, the Philippines and Singapore........

© The Japan Times