Australia's Prime Minister Scott Morrison, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong

Australia's Prime Minister Scott Morrison (R) and Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong (L-on screen) conduct a virtual summit between the two countries at Parliament House in Canberra on March 23, 2020. (Photo: Mick Tsikas / POOL / AFP)

The State of Southeast Asia Survey

Australia’s Gold, Silver and Bronze


The latest State of Southeast Asia Survey should satiate Australia’s thirst for international recognition.

To say that Australia is a sports-mad society might be understating it. Sporting success overseas is widely celebrated, and failure castigated. Victories over some sporting foes (the United Kingdom, New Zealand, the United States and, recently, China) are particularly coveted. Doing worse than New Zealand in any contest except rugby union (where it is mournfully expected) and the resulting trans-Tasman ribbing is particularly galling.

This national fixation with sporting prowess influences domestic perceptions of Australian foreign policy and the country’s place in the region. Australia is expected to continually “punch above its weight” and be widely recognised for doing so. Alexander Downer, Australia’s longest-serving Foreign Minister, criticised his predecessor for placing Australia in a lighter international weight class. While Gareth Evans saw Australia as a middle power, Downer retorted “We’re not a middling nation but a considerable power.”

The State of Southeast Asia: 2021 Survey released last week should satisfy the Australian urge for foreign recognition. The 2021 survey includes Australia in more questions (8) than the 2020 survey (6). The 2020 one had three times more questions including Australia than the inaugural 2019 survey that relegated Australia to two questions in the soft power section at the end. A reduction in questions including Australia in future surveys, while justified by the 2021 results, would not go down well Down Under.

As measures of Australia’s foreign relations prowess and success, the survey results are very good, good and ordinary (a pejorative term in over-achieving Australia). Fortunately, the best (gold medal) results are in the most important categories, and the ordinary (bronze medal) ones are in the least important when considering Australia’s interests in Southeast Asia.

As measures of Australia’s foreign relations prowess and success, the survey results are very good, good and ordinary (a pejorative term in over-achieving Australia).

The 2021 survey shows that the Southeast Asian policy elites polled are strongly aligned with the current Australian policy settings and aspirations for Southeast Asia in two crucial areas.

First, on the South China Sea disputes, when asked how ASEAN should respond to the South China Sea situation, 84.6 per cent opted for “ASEAN should take a principled stand that upholds international law, including UNCLOS, and respect the 2016 arbitral tribunal ruling.” This is the current Australian policy on this issue. Only 12.8 per cent thought “ASEAN should discourage non-claimants from getting involved in the SCS issue.” Beijing would certainly like ASEAN to join it in this discouragement.

Australia’s principled policy position of publicly upholding the July 2016 arbitral tribunal ruling on the South China Sea is one of the fourteen grievances China’s embassy in Canberra shared late last year with selected Australian media outlets. Southeast Asians, it seems, will be aggrieved if ASEAN does not step up and adopt the same position as Australia.

Second, when asked “How should ASEAN respond to rising protectionism and nationalism around the world?”, the most popular of four exclusive options with 50.7 per cent choosing it was to “deepen cooperation with like-minded multilateralist partners beyond ASEAN.” Respondents from Brunei, Singapore and Vietnam were the strongest supporters of this option. Australia, as a self-identifying like-minded multilateralist partner beyond ASEAN, would undoubtedly favour this as well.

Australia’s results in the 2021 survey’s questions on soft power and regional leadership were consistent and good across all questions and when compared with the two previous surveys. In the soft power category, Australia is clearly in a second group of countries below Japan, the European Union and the US, but ahead of India, South Korea and China. When it came to favoured educational destinations, 12.3 per cent opted for Australia from a list of 10 options. This is well behind the USA and UK, well ahead of ASEAN, South Korea, China, India and New Zealand, and level-pegging with Japan and the European Union. The 2020 and 2019 results were similar.

When it came to favoured travel destinations, Australia again is in the second group well behind Japan, the European Union, ASEAN and (shock and horror) New Zealand, well ahead of China and India, and level-pegging with the US, the UK, and South Korea. The 2020 and 2019 results were similar.

On regional leadership questions, Australia again is in the second of three groups – which is to be expected. On the questions about regional leadership on free trade and the rules-based order, and as a favoured third party for ASEAN to hedge against the US-China rivalry, Australia easily topped India, South Korea and the UK, again was painfully pipped by New Zealand, and fell far behind Japan and the European Union. That the latter trumped Canberra is not expected, given their trading linkages with Southeast Asian states. As for New Zealand, maybe being a less active ally of the US than Australia helps perceptions in Southeast Asia.

In the hard power questions that included Australia for the first time in the 2021 survey, the country did the worst and fell clearly into the third of three groups of countries. When asked the heavyweight question “which country/regional organisation is the most influential economic power in Southeast Asia”, only 0.3 per cent of respondents opted for Australia. Only India scored worse at 0.1 per cent, while South Korea came third from bottom with 0.6 per cent.

When it came to the most influential political and strategic power in Southeast Asia, Australia fared a bit better with 0.4 per cent of respondents rating Australia as the top puncher. Australia scored better than India at 0.2 per cent and South Korea at 0.3 per cent.

In discussions about the 2021 survey, Australia’s recently arrived High Commissioner to Singapore may want to avoid his New Zealand counterpart, and not mention the survey results to his Indian, British and South Korean counterparts. Friendly ribbing in sport might not translate so well into the arena of high politics.


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