In a notable shift in geopolitical dynamics, the latest survey by the Singapore-based think tank ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute has revealed that China has surpassed the United States as the preferred ally for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) if forced to choose between the two rival powers. The survey, which polled nearly 2,000 respondents across the 10 ASEAN member states, marks the first time in five years that China has taken the lead.

According to the survey results, seven out of the 10 ASEAN countries-Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, and Thailand-showed a higher preference for China compared to the previous year. The most significant shifts were seen in Laos and Malaysia, with increases of 29.5% and 20.3%, respectively. However, the Philippines, Singapore, and Vietnam saw a decline in their preference for China.

Despite the headline-grabbing findings, experts caution against interpreting the survey results as a unanimous tilt towards China. "Each country maintains its own agency and views on the U.S.-China binary question. Hence we cannot assume that the region has a united view about China or the U.S.," says Sharon Seah, a senior fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute's ASEAN Studies Centre and a lead author of the annual report.

Mark S. Cogan, associate professor of peace and conflict studies at Japan's Kansai Gaidai University, echoes this sentiment, stating that "ASEAN as an institution is divided and has so many different displays of behavior when it comes to U.S.-China relations." Many ASEAN states have traditionally maintained close economic ties with China while simultaneously hedging against its territorial ambitions through defense partnerships with the U.S.

Indonesia's President-elect Prabowo Subianto exemplifies this balancing act, meeting with Chinese leader Xi Jinping in Beijing to boost strategic cooperation before departing for Japan, a prominent U.S. ally, to meet with Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and Defense Minister Minoru Kihara. Similarly, Thailand's Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin has actively courted both China and the U.S. for investments, particularly in a billion-dollar land bridge project across the country.

As China's assertiveness in the South China Sea grows, Southeast Asian nations involved in territorial disputes with Beijing, such as the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and Indonesia, have sought defense support from the U.S. Nonetheless, China remains the top trading partner for many of these countries, including the Philippines.

The survey also revealed that about half of the respondents believe ASEAN should "enhance its resilience and unity to fend off pressure from the two major powers" in response to the U.S.-China rivalry. This sentiment has remained consistent over the years, highlighting the region's desire to maintain its autonomy amidst great-power competition.

The shift in alignment comes amid concerns about the U.S.'s expanding strategic and political influence, as well as doubts about the effectiveness of the U.S.-led Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity. China is now perceived as the region's most influential economic and political-strategic power, with Muslim-majority nations like Malaysia, Indonesia, and Brunei showing a preference for China.

However, the U.S. still holds majority support from the Philippines and Vietnam, both of which are embroiled in territorial disputes with Beijing. The impact of the Israel-Hamas conflict on the U.S.'s standing among regional nations remains uncertain.

As Seah concludes, "The key takeaway is that as the geopolitical environment becomes more volatile, the region is looking to enhance its internal resilience." The ISEAS survey underscores the complex and diverse nature of ASEAN's responses to the U.S.-China rivalry, with each member state navigating its own set of strategic calculations and bilateral relationships with the two superpowers.