Australia’s soft power outage

Australia’s attractiveness to Southeast Asians appears to be waning despite a series of diplomatic initiatives spanning the 2018 Sydney regional leaders’ summit to last year’s aid spending increase.

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A new survey shows Australian education and tourism have lost favour over the past three years amongst regional opinion makers - although they still view the country as their third choice as the best partner to deal with rising US-China tensions.

"Australia’s rank as the preferred country for tertiary education has fallen from third choice behind the US and Europe in 2019 to fifth choice in this year’s survey.”

However, the findings about Australia are overshadowed by many other issues in the latest wide-ranging survey of regional opinion by the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute. The findings provide an intriguing insight into the country’s soft power across the 10 Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) members during a period when the Morrison government, and its predecessors, have been elevating this region as a strategic and economic partner.

Divided opinion

The annual State of Southeast Asia survey shows opinion remains quite divided over US-China tensions. However, the mood towards the US has improved with the new president while suspicion towards China has grown.

If forced to choose between the two superpowers, 61.5 per cent of respondents would choose the US (up from 53.6 per cent last year). Only 38.5 per cent would choose China (down from 46.4 per cent last year). But there was a more significant swing towards the US at the country level, with a majority of people in only three countries choosing China compared with seven countries last year.

The survey also shows Australia’s rank as the preferred country for tertiary education has fallen from third choice behind the US and Europe in 2019 to fifth choice in this year’s survey, now also behind Japan and Britain (broken out of Europe post-Brexit).

In another blow for the education export sector, the proportion of people choosing Australia has fallen from 21.2 per cent to 12.3 per cent. However, the survey does not explain whether the decline last year was due to Australia’s more severe pandemic shutdowns than some competing education exporters, such as Britain.

At the same time Australia’s rank as the preferred holiday destination has slightly improved from fifth to fourth behind Europe and Japan although the proportion of people choosing it has fallen from 10.7 per cent to 5.6 per cent over the three years. And notably, in this year’s survey New Zealand outranks Australia for the second year in a row as the preferred destination of 9.8 per cent of people.

More remarkably, when the Morrison government has included Southeast Asia in a $A500 million three year COVID-19 vaccine distribution program, Australia also ranks behind New Zealand for providing pandemic assistance. Only 4.3 per cent of respondents chose it as ASEAN’s top COVID-19 partner, which was behind New Zealand on 4.7 per cent despite their assistance being more focused on the Pacific.

More significantly from a bigger picture perspective, China stands out as the top COVID-19 partner chosen by 44.2 per cent, more than twice that of second-ranked Japan.

Relatively steady

However, despite this faltering soft power in education, tourism and healthcare, Australia is still seen as a credible ally in the context of US-China rivalry. While Europe and Japan are each consistently chosen by about one third of respondents as the preferred third-party hedge country, Australia was chosen by a relatively steady 7.5 per cent. That ranking has always been ahead of India, South Korea and New Zealand. And when asked to identify an alternate partner to the US, Australia was again ranked third behind Japan and the EU.

Some better news for Australia…

New analysis by Boston Consulting Group and The Network shows people are less likely than ever to relocate for work – but when they are contemplating a move, Australia is top of mind.

The global survey of 208,807 people across 190 countries shows COVID-19 has had a major impact on people’s attitudes toward work abroad, reducing their interest generally and inclining them toward countries that have done the best job of containing the coronavirus.

The US has slipped to second, with Canada now regarded as the top destination for people to work. Australia is third, up from 7th in 2014, beating out European competitors Germany, the UK, Switzerland and France.

New Zealand has also cracked the top 10 for the first time, surging forward from the 15th position in 2018 to claim the 10th spot.

BCG managing director Chris Mattey says while a desire to move abroad for work has been decreasing for some time, COVID-19 has been a new variable that has made people more cautious about international relocation.

“The BCG results show how Australia’s response to COVID-19 is also a win for Australian companies, who will have greater access to global talent looking to work in Australia or work for an Australian company remotely,” he says.

Greg Earl is the editor of Asia Society Australia's monthly publication Briefing Monthly and was a former south east Asia correspondent for the Australian Financial Review

This article first appeared in Asia Society Australia's Briefing MONTHLY February 2021

The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.

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