US President Donald Trump makes a video call to the troops stationed worldwide at the Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach Florida, on December 24, 2019. (Nicholas Kamm / AFP)

America’s Polling Problems


Faced with China's growing economic power and a lack of confidence in President Trump, the United States has suffered sharp declines in opinion polls among policy elites in the region.

ISEAS’ State of Southeast Asia 2020 Survey Report of policy elites in the 10 Southeast Asian states is difficult reading for the USA for two reasons.

First, China has further eclipsed the USA as the perceived leading power in Southeast Asia. In the 2020 report, only 7.9% viewed the USA as the leading economic power in the region compared with 79.2% for China. As for strategic and political influence, only 26.7% saw the USA as the leading power compared with 52.2% for China. Respondent sets from none of the 10 Southeast Asian countries saw the USA as more powerful than China regionally in either economic or political strategic terms. On both fronts, the gaps between perceptions of China and the USA as the leading power in the region were greater in 2020 than in 2019.

Second, President Trump is a problem for the USA in Southeast Asia. 60.3% of respondents agreed that a change of president in the USA would increase their confidence in the country, including 76.9% of Singapore respondents. 77% of respondents this year think that American engagement in the region is decreasing while only 9.9% agree with the Trump administration that the opposite is true. Again, the 2020 results for this question were starker than 2019.

These ISEAS polling results are quite similar with those of the 2019 Lowy Institute public opinion poll in Australia. 76% of Australians polled distrusted President Trump to “do the right thing in world affairs”, up from 70% in 2018. The respective distrust figures for President Xi of China are 68% and 44%. Two-thirds of Australians polled agree that President Trump is weakening the alliance relationship between the USA and Australia that is the cornerstone of Australian defence policy. In the 2018 Lowy poll, 55% chose China as the world’s leading power versus 29% for the USA.

In the 2020 report, only 7.9% viewed the USA as the leading economic power in the region compared with 79.2% for China.

Recent Pew Center public opinion polling in six Asian countries (Indonesia, the Philippines, Japan, South Korea, India and Australia) also echo the ISEAS results. All six countries expressed more favourable views of the United States than confidence in President Trump to “do the right thing in world affairs.” 77% of South Koreans polled had a favourable view of the USA but only 46% confidence in President Trump. Among these 6 Asian countries, the Philippines expressed the most favourable views of the USA and Trump while Indonesia the least.

The results of the US presidential election this November will help determine if next year’s ISEAS survey readings are easier on the American eye.

Malcolm Cook was previously Visiting Senior Fellow at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute and Editor at Fulcrum.