The European Union's image in Southeast Asia has improved over the past year, including its reputation as a defender of free trade and international law, according to The State of Southeast Asia 2023 survey report published late this week
Brussels has cemented its place as the preferred "third party" that Southeast Asian nations want to engage with amid fractious US-China superpower rivalry in the region, while trust in the EU as an economic and political actor is also growing, the report said.
Almost 43% of the region's respondents preferred the EU as an alternative partner, well ahead of Japan, the UK and India.
"Against the backdrop of the US-China rivalry, ASEAN needs to broaden its strategic options," Melinda Martinus, lead researcher at the ISEAS–Yusof Ishak Institute's ASEAN Studies Center and an author of the annual survey, said, referring to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
"Engagement with the EU provides a cushion from the intensifying rivalry between the two superpowers," she added. "The EU's stance on the environment and climate, human rights, the rule of law, and territorial integrity has demonstrated that they are a responsible global partner needed by ASEAN to maintain the world order."
Southeast Asia wants 'a multilateral rules-based world'
According to the survey, some 4.2% of Southeast Asian respondents thought the EU was the most influential economic actor in the region, up from just 1.7% last year and compared to 10.5% who said the US.
Almost 5% said the EU has the most political and strategic influence in the region, in comparison to 0.8% last year.
The survey also saw a rise in the numbers of Southeast Asians who had confidence in the EU as a champion of free trade and in its leadership to maintain the rules-based order and uphold international law, ranking the bloc second behind the US.
Igor Driesmans, the EU ambassador to ASEAN, said he was pleased by the results.
"ASEAN's increasingly positive perception of the EU is the result, I think, of our decadeslong consistency and predictability in favor of international law and multilateralism,” he told DW.
"Like us, Southeast Asians want to live in a multilateral rules-based world, where human rights and international law are upheld and where might does not make right."
In addition, Driesmans added, the poll reflects the strength of the EU's growing relationship as a strategic partner for ASEAN.
"This will encourage us to keep the momentum of last year's EU-ASEAN Commemorative Leader's Summit and focus on our joint work to improve connectivity, ensure a green transition, and make trade free and fair," he said.
Cambodians turn to EU in US-China rivalry
The EU's popularity appears to be rising the quickest among the region's smaller states, including those with which the EU currently has weaker economic or diplomatic relations.
Whereas less than a third of Laotians last year had confidence that the EU will "do the right thing" to contribute to global peace, security, prosperity and governance, it rose to nearly two-thirds in this year's survey.
Confidence in the EU also dramatically rose among Cambodians, of whom almost four-fifths prefer the EU as their main "third party" amid the US-China rivalry, the most of any of the 10 surveyed Southeast Asian populaces.
Seun Sam, a policy analyst at the Royal Academy of Cambodia, reckons it's partly to do with the EU being a major importer of Cambodian goods, as well as improved relations after Cambodia held the annually rotating ASEAN chair last year, during which Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen was praised for supporting the West's stance on Russia for its invasion of Ukraine.
He co-hosted the EU-ASEAN leaders' summit in December, and while in Europe made a rare state visit to France.
"People around the world will criticize Cambodia for being too close to China or being too close to the US," Sam said, "but no one will criticize Cambodia for being too close to the EU." He was referring to widespread allegations that Hun Sen's government is now fully in Beijing's orbit.
Popularity declines in Malaysia and Indonesia
The EU's image, however, appears to have suffered in Malaysia and Indonesia, where anger is boiling over the bloc's plans to phase out imports of palm oil and alter environmental rules on imports, which the two countries say will severely harm their local agriculture industries.
The two Southeast Asian countries are among the world's largest producers of palm oil, and both have taken Brussels to the World Trade Organization over its legislation.
Almost half of Indonesian respondents, up from a third last year, now have "no confidence” or "little confidence” that the EU will do the right thing to contribute to global peace, security, prosperity and governance.
"In Malaysia and Indonesia, the palm oil issue remains serious and is not likely to improve any time soon," said Bridget Welsh, an analyst at the University of Nottingham's Asia Research Institute.
"It also feeds into a deep-seated framework where the West is seen as targeting Muslim countries and imposing its values in a hypocritical manner," Welsh added.
During last December's EU-ASEAN Commemorative Summit in Brussels, Indonesian President Joko Widodo made clear he doesn't want any lecturing from the EU.
"There must be no imposition of views," he stated. "There must not be one who dictates over the other and thinks that my standard is better than yours."
According to Welsh, the EU "needs to appreciate how damaging the discrimination on palm oil in Malaysia and Indonesia is."
However, EU and Indonesian negotiators are meeting this week in Jakarta for the 13th round of talks, and European officials are hopeful that a free trade agreement can be reached by the end of the year.
EU trade talks with Thailand will resume in March, that country's Commerce Minister Jurin Laksanawisit confirmed last month after a meeting with Valdis Dombrovskis, the EU trade commissioner. The EU said in December that it also wants to resume talks with the Philippines.
German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier's visit to Cambodia and Malaysia, meanwhile, kicks off next week to deepen Germany's political and economic ties in the region.
Edited by: Sou-Jie van Brunnersum