Some Southeast Asians Are Turning Against America Over Gaza. It Likely Won’t Last.

by David Hutt

Apr 17, 2024 in CEIAS Insights

Some Southeast Asians Are Turning Against America Over Gaza. It Likely Won’t Last.

This is not the first time that regional opinion toward the U.S. has soured over events in the Middle East.

This year’s annual State of Southeast Asia survey, from the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, quite definitively showed that America’s popularity is waning in the region. Now it is in the hands of journalists and academics to debate why exactly this is and to what extent it’s declining. To this columnist, at least, one obvious reason is the Israel-Hamas war.

When asked which current geopolitical event is a top concern for the government in your country, 46.5 percent of Southeast Asians nominated the Gaza conflict, a higher percentage than any other geopolitical event – more, indeed, than those who said the South China Sea crisis or Myanmar conflict, two rather pressing matters that are taking place within Southeast Asia. But the regional average was skewed by the Muslim-majority countries. Some 83.1 percent of Malaysians and 75 percent of Indonesians said the Gaza war was among their top three geopolitical concerns, compared to just 13 percent of Burmese. Nonetheless, it was a top-two concern for five of the ten ASEAN countries, according to the respondents. Interestingly, while 41.8 percent of Southeast Asians thought that “Israel’s attack on Gaza has gone too far” – again, the regional average was skewed by the respondents from Brunei, Indonesia, and Malaysia – some 19.6 percent (mostly Filipinos and Vietnamese) said Israel has the right to retaliate subject to international law.

Frustratingly, the pollsters never asked the respondents their opinions on how other governments have responded to this conflict, which would have allowed us to see whether – as seems to be the case – events in the Middle East are a primary cause for the drop in the United States’ popularity in this year’s survey. But some information was offered that allows one to infer this. When asked about the most likely impact of the Israel-Hamas conflict on Southeast Asia, the second-highest answer was “diminished trust in international law and rules-based order.” And this was the majority view of Bruneians, Indonesians, and Malaysians, those most outraged by the conflict.

Or turn to whether “the U.S. will ‘do the right thing’ to contribute to global peace, security, prosperity, and governance.”  As a regional average, those which had “no confidence” rose from 6.5 percent in last year’s survey to 14.1 percent in this year’s. Yet again, Brunei, Indonesia, and Malaysia massively skewed this. In 2023, for instance, only 9.9 percent of Indonesians had no confidence that the U.S. would “do the right thing.” This year, it was up to 34.3 percent. For Bruneians, it rose from 2.5 percent to 32.5 percent.

We’ve been here before. A 2001 survey by the Pew Research Center found that 75 percent of Indonesians held favorable views of the U.S., and a 2002 poll put it at 61 percent. However, the following year, after America’s invasion of Iraq, only 15 percent of Indonesians had a positive view, while 83 percent voiced a negative opinion. The Pew survey authors were explicit that this negative turn was because of the “onset of the Iraq war.” Indeed, it’s important to remember just how outraged Jakarta was about the overthrow of the barbarous Saddam Hussein regime – an “utter failure” that jeopardized world peace, Indonesia’s then-Foreign Minister Noer Hassan Wirajuda said at the time. However, what the Pew researchers also found was that America’s reputation quickly rebounded. After a low of just 15 percent favorability in 2003, it was up to 38 percent by 2005, which may have been due to U.S. support after the tsunami of 2004, and by 2009 it was above 50 percent, which may been due to what the Pew authors called the “Obama Effect.”

What’s also worth bearing in mind is that public opinion on such matters is split within countries. Just as regional averages in the State of Southeast Asia surveys mask massively different opinions when broken down to the individual country, regional averages within those countries mask polarized thoughts in these countries. Last year, Pew Research produced a fascinating survey on the differences of opinion between Buddhists and Muslims in Southeast Asia. That one didn’t ask about foreign policy, but a 2007 Pew survey, not long after the invasion of Iraq, found that only 27 percent of Malaysians held favorable views of the U.S. Yet it found that 53 percent of Malaysia’s Buddhists had favorable opinions of America compared with just 10 percent among the country’s Muslims.

Most pertinent to the matter at hand, that survey also noted: “In much of the Muslim world and elsewhere, positive attitudes toward the U.S. declined between 2002 and 2003, coinciding with the buildup to and beginning of the Iraq war. While America’s image has not returned to pre-war levels in most countries where trends are available, it has actually risen among Muslims in several countries since its 2003 nadir.” As seen, that was true for Indonesia. We don’t have similar surveys on Malaysian public opinion between 2002 and the end of the decade, but one might guess that the unpopularity of the U.S. caused by the Iraq invasion dissipated somewhat by the early 2010s.

The question, then, is whether the dip in America’s popularity over the past few months in Indonesia, Malaysia, and Brunei, as well as some other parts of Southeast Asia, because of events in Gaza is likely to be similar to what occurred after the invasion of Iraq: a considerable downturn in favorability but a gradual improvement in the following years? Most probably, this time around, the decline in U.S. popularity is likely to be far less severe and rebound more quickly now than in the 2000s, not least because the U.S. is now more integral in defending Southeast Asia against a grasping China and because Washington is now ostentatiously backtracking on its support for Israel while making it known to the world, at least rhetorically, that it shouldn’t be a victim of the tirades directed at Israel. Call this grandstanding. Call it hypocrisy or betrayal. But, clearly, Washington knows that the Israel-Gaza war is the reason why its reputation is plummeting globally.

The article was originally published by The Diplomat.


David Hutt
David Hutt

Research Fellow | Editor

Key Topics

diplomacyGaza StripISEAS surveyISEAS-Yusof Ishak InstituteIsrael-Hamas warIsrael-Palestine conflictMiddle Eastpublic opinionSoutheast AsiaIsraelPalestineUnited States of America (USA)


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