Opinion & Analysis

Comparing public views on Asia across both sides of the Tasman

The day the Asia New Zealand Foundation launched its Perceptions of Asia report, the Lowy Institute released its poll on Australian views - how do they compare? Dr Jordan King takes a look. 

Last month the Asia New Zealand Foundation Te Whītau Tūhono launched its annual Perceptions of Asia and Asian Peoples survey. The survey has been conducted since 1997 and is New Zealand’s longest running and most comprehensive international relations public opinion survey. On the same day the Foundation launched Perceptions of Asia, the Lowy Institute, a leading Australian think tank launched its annual Lowy Poll.  

The surveys provide a snapshot of how citizens on both sides of the Tasman see the world and illuminate public sentiment on geopolitical developments, international trade, diplomatic priorities, and national security issues. These surveys are an important fixture in the annual international relations calendar and provide critical insights for policymakers, researchers, media, and the wider public. 

While caution is always advised when comparing survey research, the similarities between Perceptions of Asia and the Lowy Poll in terms of themes, questions, sample and methodology allow for some general comparisons to be made. 

An infographic from the New Zealanders' Perceptions of Asia and Asian Peoples report.

Trust in major powers 

Both surveys ask citizens about how much they trust ‘major powers’ to act responsibly in the world.  

New Zealanders consider the United Kingdom and Japan to be responsible world powers, while the order is flipped in Australia with Japan deemed most trustworthy followed by the United Kingdom. Trust levels towards the United States had eroded significantly on both sides of the Tasman during the Trump Presidency yet have bounced back under President Biden. New Zealanders and Australians reserve the title of ‘least trustworthy’ major power for Russia. There has been a small increase in China's trustworthiness score in both countries, however many citizens across 'Tasman World' remain wary of China’s conduct as a global power.  

Friends and threats in a challenging world 

Australians rank New Zealand as the country in the world they feel warmest, with the feeling reciprocated by New Zealanders. Eighty-eight percent of New Zealanders consider Australia a friend to New Zealand followed by the United Kingdom, Canada, and Japan. On the Lowy Poll’s ‘feelings thermometer’ New Zealand comes in ‘warmest’ followed by Japan and the United Kingdom.  

Citizens in both countries consider Japan to be their ‘best friend’ in Asia. After Japan, New Zealanders consider Singapore and South Korea to be close friends while India and Singapore follow Japan in the minds of Australians.  

As recently as 2016 Australians considered China to be Australia’s best friend in Asia. It was a similar story in New Zealand in 2017 where China was perceived to be the most friendly Asian country towards New Zealand after Japan. Public perceptions of China’s friendliness have trended downwards over the past few years but have rallied slightly in both polls this year  

Nevertheless, a sizeable majority of citizens in both countries feel cool towards China.  

There is, however, public support for ongoing engagement with China. A majority of Australians view the increased political contact between the Albanese government and China as a positive development. New Zealanders consider China to be the most important country in Asia for New Zealand’s future and support investing extra effort into the relationship.  

Infographic: New Zealanders' Perceptions of Asia and Asian Peoples report.

Threats to vital interests  

New Zealanders and Australians are also in lockstep in terms of concerns over potential threats and challenges that could disrupt or act against national interests in the coming years.    

Top of mind for Australians is the threat of cyberattacks from other countries. Australia has experienced a series of high-profile attacks on public and private sector institutions. Cyberattacks were also ranked as an area of concern for New Zealanders – however, the impacts of climate change, fake news and disinformation, plus a sluggish global economic recovery were the issues keeping Kiwis awake at night. However, the rankings of different potential calamities or problems were a close-run race, highlighting that the public in our patch of the world increasingly feel we are living in a time of interconnected crises or a ‘polycrisis’.  

Defence policy and capability   

Significant work on defence and security policy has been underway in both New Zealand and Australia, in response to a complex and fraught global context shaped by geopolitical tensions and encroaching impacts of climate change. The Lowy Poll tracked public views on AUKUS and acquiring nuclear-powered submarines as well as Australia’s overall defence strategy, and Australia’s alliance relationship with the United States. Around half of Australians (49 percent) feel that AUKUS enhances Australia’s safety while one quarter (23 percent) feel it will make little impact. Two-thirds of Australians (67 percent) favour the idea of Australia acquiring nuclear-propelled submarines but the price tag (anywhere from NZ$285-385 billion over 30 years) has 47 percent of Australians balking at cost compared to 27 percent who are comfortable with the expenditure. Eight out of ten Australians (82 percent) consider the alliance with the United States to be important for Australia’s security, but three-quarters of Australians (74 percent) also agree that the US alliance makes it more likely Australia will be drawn into a war in Asia. 

The New Zealand government will launch its defence policy review later this year. Prime Minister Hipkins has set the tone by stating New Zealand has ‘big decisions ahead of us…in terms of the capability we have in our Defence Force’ The Perceptions of Asia survey found that ninety percent of New Zealanders consider having a modern defence force equipped to operate internationally is at least ‘somewhat important’, with over two-thirds (67 percent) considering it important or very important.  

New Zealanders are increasingly cognisant of the need to strengthen security and defence ties with partners in Asia. Forty-five percent of New Zealanders believe that defence partnerships are important or very important – this represented a 19 percentage point jump in importance in a single year. New Zealanders recognise Japan, Singapore, and South Korea as key security partners in Asia.  

A potential conflict over Taiwan 

Both surveys asked citizens about the possibility of tensions in the Taiwan Strait escalating into conflict. One third of New Zealanders are extremely or very concerned about the possibility of a military conflict over Taiwan, with 63 percent at least fairly concerned. The Lowy Institute’s poll asked questions about potential scenarios in the event of conflict. Australians have a high level of support for offering humanitarian aid to refugees and applying sanctions, while over 60 percent of Australians would support Australia providing military supplies to assist Taiwan. Only a minority of citizens would support deployment of Australian forces in defence of Taiwan.   

Infographic: New Zealanders' Perceptions of Asia and Asian Peoples report.

Engagement with Asia 

The Foundation’s survey understandably places emphasis on New Zealand’s engagement with Asia. Four in five New Zealanders (80 percent) believe that it is important to develop political, economic and social ties with Asia and two-thirds of New Zealanders (65 percent) believe it is more important for New Zealand to invest energy and resources into building partnerships across Asia than it was five years ago.  

New Zealanders’ perceptions of the importance of Southeast and South Asia are on the rise.  

New Zealanders know comparatively less about these two sub-regions, however the survey finds strong support exists for Asia-related teaching in New Zealand schools and universities.  

Unfortunately, this finding comes at a time when teaching and research on Asia is under threat at several New Zealand universities. The Foundation’s survey also asked about the importance of New Zealand having a long-term vision and plan to grow engagement with Asia, with 88 percent viewing this as at least somewhat important for the future and two thirds (66 percent) of the viewing this as important or very important.  

The Lowy Poll asks fewer questions about Australia’s engagement with Asia, however it is clear that the Albanese government has expanded Australia’s diplomatic activities and put more resources into its Asia diplomacy. Notably, this has included warmer engagement with Indonesia at the prime ministerial level, the ‘rock-star’ welcome of India’s prime minister Narendra Modi, the appointment of a special envoy for Southeast Asia, and a different tone on engagement with China.  

The Lowy Poll also finds that so far Australians perceive Anthony Albanese to be doing a better job in handling Australia’s foreign relations than his predecessors Morrison and Turnbull.  

Overall, comparing the New Zealanders’ Perceptions of Asia report with the Lowy Institute’s findings in Australia offers us insights into where our two countries connect and diverge on Asia.  

As neighbours and friends in an increasingly complex world, understanding each others views is increasingly important.

- Asia Media Centre