Best mates can relate: How Kiwis and Aussies see Asia

In the 2017 Perceptions of Asia survey, 70 percent of Kiwis ranked Japan as being a friendly country.

In May, the Asia New Zealand Foundation launched the latest results in its annual New Zealanders’ Perceptions of Asia and Asian Peoples tracking survey – and just a few weeks later, Australia’s Lowy Institute released the findings of its 2018 poll Understanding Australian Attitudes to the WorldThe reports show we have a lot in common with our nearest neighbours, writes Dr James To, senior adviser (research) at the Asia New Zealand Foundation. 

Putting knowledge of Asia to the test

Since 1997, the Asia New Zealand Foundation has asked a broad range of New Zealanders about their thoughts and feelings towards different parts of Asia and the its peoples. Perceptions of Asia takes an additional step of exploring some of the context behind those answers with focus groups, adding a more nuanced touch to the results.

In recent years, the results have consistently found New Zealanders recognised Asia as important to this country’s future, but felt they didn’t know enough about the region. We wondered whether this was perhaps a reflection of Kiwi modesty and not wanting to sound like a know-it-all?

So we decided to put this to the test. And in doing so, we looked to the Lowy Poll for themes we might draw from. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, after all.

Our most recent survey asked 2000 respondents six general knowledge questions about Asia-related issues. These included identifying the largest source of foreign direct investment from a multi-choice list, and identifying which Asian country had the largest Muslim population.

It turned out New Zealanders’ perceived lack of knowledge wasn’t merely a matter of modesty – if their answers were anything to go by, they actually didn’t know much about Asia. The average score was two out of six (meanwhile, in a separate process, members of the Foundation’s Leadership Network averaged more than four correct answers).

Both the Lowy Institute and the Asia New Zealand Foundation asked respondents about the political system of Indonesia: 24 percent of Australians correctly agreed it was democratic; while in New Zealand, only 16 percent were right. Significantly, 43 percent of New Zealanders said they had no idea at all. It looks like both countries still have a lot to learn about the world’s third largest democracy.

Who are our mates? 

The Foundation also took a similar approach to one of the Lowy’s popular lines of questioning: whether other countries were viewed as friends or threats.

Adding this theme to Perceptions of Asia has raised some interesting comparisons between the way Australia and New Zealand perceive Asia. A disclaimer: it wasn’t exactly comparing apples with apples, given the different framing of questions. Timing is also an issue – Perceptions of Asia  was in the field late last year, as bellicose rhetoric between the United States and North Korea was flying thick and fast. The Lowy poll was conducted in March 2018.

Still, there are some synergies. First up, it’s no surprise that Kiwis and Aussies consider each other best mates, ranking in both surveys at number one in terms of having warmest feelings for each other; Aussies rated us at a record 86 degrees. New Zealanders also ranked Commonwealth countries the United Kingdom and Canada as particularly friendly, and both those countries also scored in the top three for warmth in the Lowy Poll. 

As one of the Kiwi respondents put it, Australia, the United Kingdom, and Canada “are like the old boys. Part of the Commonwealth. Especially Australia. We’re ANZACs”.

In terms of feelings towards Asian countries, the Lowy poll found that Australians felt the warmest towards Japan (at 74 degrees). This too is similar to New Zealand, with Japan consistently rating highly among Asian countries perceived as friendly. The 2017 Perceptions of Asia survey saw 70 percent of New Zealanders picking Japan as a friendly country, making it the top-ranked Asian country. 

Something else the two countries have in common is the way they see the United States and China. For Aussies, the warmth ranking for the US is 67 degrees and China is a moderately warm friend at 58 degrees. In Perceptions of Asia, 63 percent and 62 percent of New Zealanders considered the US and China respectively as friendly towards New Zealand.

The US and China are level-pegging it as perceived threats

Yet when Perceptions of Asia asked respondents to rate countries as threats, the US ranked third (after North Korea and Russia) as the greatest threat towards New Zealand. China ranked fourth. Asked what the biggest single threat was, the US took second place and China third. 

greatest threat

The 2017 Perceptions of Asia survey asked New Zealanders which countries they perceived to be the greatest threat to New Zealand.

In the Lowy poll, 42 percent of Australians felt the Trump presidency was a critical threat; 36 percent felt the same about US foreign policy; and 36 percent felt China’s growing power was a threat. Forty-six percent agreed China would likely become a military threat in 20 years’ time; when asked why, there was 77 percent agreement that Australia might become embroiled in a conflict between the US and China.

For both Australia and New Zealand, these results suggest low levels of trust and confidence towards US President Donald Trump and China’s Xi Jinping. But they also highlight the uncertainty we hold about two leaders amid confusing tweets from Trump, and the increasingly assertive regime in Beijing.

The issue of foreign influence/interference was in the media at the time both surveys were conducted. But it did not feature highly in Perceptions of Asia, and it was far from the top of the list of things that Australians were worried about. According to the Lowy poll,  international terrorism, North Korea’s nuclear programme and climate change were seen as the biggest threats across the Tasman.

By comparison, 41 percent of Australians saw foreign interference as a critical threat – and when asked specifically, 63 percent expressed concern about China, with slightly fewer (58 percent) concerned about the US as a source of interference.

In Perceptions of Asia, 18 percent of New Zealanders identified China as a threat to New Zealand. Focus group participants attributed the threat perception to China’s growing economic might - and a sense that the Chinese government is opaque.

While the US and China might be level-pegging it as perceived threats, one finding from Lowy was optimistic – 81 percent of Australians said it was possible to have a good relationship with both China and the US at the same time.

Views on investment and immigration

The Lowy poll asked about views on Chinese investment into Australia; 72 percent thought the levels were too high. When the Foundation asked New Zealanders whether New Zealand was allowing “too much” investment from Asia in 2016, 45 percent agreed and 30 disagreed (with 25 percent unsure or neutral).

We took a slightly different approach with our question line in the 2017 survey – and 62 percent of respondents said investment from Asia would have a positive impact on New Zealand’s future.

Australians and New Zealanders showed similar levels of concern about immigration in the most recent surveys. For the first time, the Lowy poll found a majority of Australians (54 percent) felt immigration levels were too high. In Perceptions of Asia,  about four in 10 New Zealanders felt immigration from Asia was a positive for New Zealand.

Where to next?

While there are many common strands in Australia and New Zealand’s thinking when it comes to our views on the Asia-Pacific region, the Lowy Institute and the Asia New Zealand Foundation are a bit different in our approaches.

Historically, the Asia New Zealand Foundation’s Perceptions of Asia survey has tended to be more internally focussed, looking at how Asia, its peoples and cultures impact on views in New Zealand. The Lowy Poll is more outward-looking; seeking views on issues of international concern such as climate change, terrorism, and overseas aid.

Perceptions of Asia is a relatively coherent and consistent set of more than 20 years of data. While New Zealand has changed considerably since 1997, in many respects the Foundation has to stick to its knitting with the research to ensure it continues to function as a tracking survey. But given the interesting comparisons that have come up this time around, don’t be surprised if we look to our Aussie mates for more inspiration in the next survey.

James To is senior adviser (research) at the Asia New Zealand Foundation. 

– Asia Media Centre