What the Indo-Pacific Thinks ... About Europe
The European Union is viewed quite positively in the Indo-Pacific. However, economic engagement does not necessarily translate into popularity.
Spring 2023 Issue: The China Challenge
The European Union and major European countries are perceived more favorably than the United States or China across 15 Indo-Pacific nations, according to a study of public opinion published this month. More than four-fifths of respondents from the Philippines, Vietnam, and Thailand report favorable views of the EU. Respondents in Kazakhstan, Japan, and Australia expressed the least favorability toward the EU, but around two-thirds of respondents in those countries still looked positively upon Europe, according to the study by the Sinophone Borderlands research project at Palacky University Olomouc in the Czech Republic. The United Kingdom was seen most favorably across the 15 states (as a mean), followed by Germany, the EU, and, in fifth place and ahead of the US, France. Indonesians and Malaysians would prefer their country’s foreign policy to most closely align with the EU, rather than China or the US. The six Southeast Asian states thought the EU’s economic importance was near parity with that of the United States.
All this gives reason for cheer in Brussels, which is determined to boost its footprint in the Indo-Pacific. And it conforms to the findings of other studies. A Pew Research Center survey conducted this spring but published this month also found that the EU is broadly seen favorably across the Indo-Pacific; more than two-thirds of Australians and South Koreans viewed it positively, as did more than half of Japanese, Singaporean, and Malaysian respondents. And it broadly aligns with the annual surveys of “elite” opinion in Southeast Asia conducted by the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore.
A Military Role?
For all the praise, though, the EU might want to take notice of a few insights from the recent Sinophone Borderlands survey. Shortly after Josep Borrell, the EU foreign policy chief, returned from Indonesia and Southeast Asia in June 2021, his landmark visit to the Indo-Pacific region, he wrote on his blog: “If we want to be a geopolitical actor, we also have to be perceived as a political and security actor in the region, not just as a development cooperation, trading, or investment partner.”
On a positive note, the EU was only seen as more economically important than the US and China by respondents from New Zealand, although it has near parity with the US in the six Southeast Asian states surveyed, according to the Sinophone Borderlands study. However, the EU was ranked as having the least military power, compared to the US and China, by all of the 15 Indo-Pacific nations except India and Vietnam, where it came second after America. That’s consistent with “elite” opinion—the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute’s surveys found that only 0.8 percent of Southeast Asians thought the EU has the most political and strategic influence—and it’s close to the truth since European states are way behind the US and China in this area. As such, much more needs to be done if, as Borrell says, the EU wants to be seen as a political and security actor.
It is also interesting to observe that there doesn’t appear to be much correlation between positive perceptions of the EU and the bloc’s actual economic interests. As the report noted: “countries with which the EU has developed strategic partnerships, including Japan and South Korea, have relatively low proportions of respondents indicating positive views toward the EU. This suggests that the EU’s trade and diplomatic outreach efforts may have little to do with the Indo-Pacific countries’ positive perceptions toward Europe.”
Indonesians were far more positive about the EU than Singaporeans, for another example. That’s despite Singapore being the first country in Southeast Asia to sign a free trade deal with the EU and despite the EU being locked into several WTO battles with Indonesia over each other’s trade tariffs. Vietnam is the other country with which the EU has a free trade deal, yet a smaller percentage of the Vietnamese public viewed the EU “very positively” than the percentage of Filipinos, with which the EU does not have a trade pact.
The EU’s “Cultural Attractiveness”
One possible takeaway, then, is that economic gains in the Indo-Pacific do not easily translate into popularity. Another interpretation is that the EU’s popularity is as much about the image other people have of European life as what the EU is actually doing in their country. One reason why the EU is popular appears to be its “cultural attractiveness,” the report found. Compared with the US and China, the EU was ranked first on the list of this for six surveyed countries (Australia, Japan, New Zealand, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam) and came second among the other nine states.
More Southeast Asian respondents thought Europeans have a better quality of life than Americans. That comports with the surveys on “elite” opinion. According to the most recent ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute survey in Southeast Asia, an EU state was voted as the second-most preferred holiday destination, just behind Japan. An EU member state was also the third choice for tertiary study if offered a scholarship, one place behind the United Kingdom.
However, the Sinophone Borderlands survey found that the EU’s “cultural attractiveness” is higher in the Indo-Pacific’s poorer countries. “Respondents from more developed Indo-Pacific countries appear to be relatively more satisfied with the standard of living they enjoy in their home countries and, thus, less impressed by how people in Europe and the US live,” the study asserted. That’s not surprising, yet it might suggest that the EU should give more focus to building ties and economic exchanges with non-traditional and poorer partners.
Lastly, public opinion in the Indo-Pacific isn’t that polarized about Europe—or, rather, Europe isn’t that polarizing in the region. (Opinions of the US and China were far more divergent between the 15 surveyed countries. Around 80 percent of Japanese had negative opinions of China, compared to just 10 percent of Pakistanis). And that’s also the case when China is factored in. In May, Sinophone Borderlands also published a survey of public opinion in China. It found that European countries still enjoyed a rather positive reception in the country, despite a marked deterioration in political relations since 2019. Around 60 percent of Chinese respondents were positive about Germany, the highest of any country in the “West.” The UK was the least popular, yet around 40 percent of Chinese were positive about it, compared to just 30 percent for the US, the least popular country surveyed.
The study also found that “Chinese respondents’ views of foreign countries correspond closely with their perceptions of those countries’ views of China.” Indeed, only around a third of Chinese respondents thought Germans had negative opinions of China. It was less than 40 percent for French. Yet that is far from reality. The latest Pew polls contend that 74 percent of Germans and 68 percent of French hold unfavorable views of China. (The Chinese respondents also thought that Americans were more positive about China than they really are.) Nonetheless, this indicates that Europeans still hold a certain cache amongst the Chinese public, far more than the US or Japan does.
David Hutt is a political journalist based between the Czech Republic and the United Kingdom, covering European foreign affairs and Europe-Asia relations.