World

Many in Asia Wait to Rate New U.S. Administration

by Nicole Naurath

Approval down in three of eight countries polled

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Median approval of U.S. leadership in eight Asian countries Gallup has surveyed so far in 2009 is down to 37% from 45% in 2008. Much of the decline in approval is attributable to an increase in the median percentage of respondents who said they did not know or refused to answer the question. Median disapproval of U.S. leadership across these eight countries is steady at 25%.

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While many factors could contribute to these findings, that the surveys were all conducted in the first half of the year likely played a key role in opinions. At this time, U.S. President Barack Obama was at the start of his presidency and primarily focused on domestic issues such as stimulating the U.S. economy and U.S. healthcare. Although Hillary Clinton did make a four-country trip to Asia, her first as U.S. Secretary of State, the Obama administration had not publicly emphasized foreign relations in Asia. In addition, the escalating global economic crisis created ripple effects for Asia's export-dependent economies, due in some part to U.S. consumers' slowed demand for goods.

Across these countries, approval rates are the highest in Singapore (68%), the Philippines (58%), and Afghanistan (50%) and lowest in Pakistan (13%) and Vietnam (16%), though Vietnam also has the highest rate of not don't know/refused responses (62%). Pakistan (47%) and Afghanistan (42%) have the highest disapproval rates, though approval in both of these countries is statistically steady compared with the 2008 rates.

Findings by Country

  • Afghanistan: The population remains nearly split on its approval and disapproval of U.S. leadership. In June 2009, 50% said they approved, 42% said they disapproved, and 7% did not give an answer, similar to opinions from 2008.

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These opinions likely reflect disagreement among Afghans about the war, U.S. military presence, and the situation since the fall of the Taliban in 2001. Overall, 57% of Afghans tell Gallup that the situation is better since 2001. Residents in North (85%) and Central (77%) Afghanistan are the most likely to agree that the situation is better, but people are not as optimistic in the South (27%) and the East (27%).

  • Pakistan: Approval of U.S. leadership in Pakistan is consistently among the lowest in Asia and held steady at roughly 10% between December 2008 and May 2009. The percentage of Pakistanis who said they did not approve of U.S. leadership declined to 47% in 2009 from 68% in 2008, but the percentage with no opinion rose to 39% from 22%.

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At the time of the most recent poll, President Obama's AfPak strategy recently had been unveiled. While there are several points of contention -- most notably the continued U.S. drone attacks on Pakistani soil -- the increase in the percentage of don't know and refused responses could reflect a wait-and-see approach to how the U.S. leadership will handle relations with Pakistan.

  • Indonesia: Approval of U.S. leadership declined slightly in 2009 to 35% from 46% in 2008; however, more people did not have an opinion about U.S. leadership (24% said they didn't know or refused to answer in 2008, but the proportion increased to 41% in 2009).

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It appears that President Obama's ties to Indonesia and the visit by Secretary Clinton in February did not immediately help boost approval of U.S. leadership there. Gallup's poll of Indonesia took place during a highly intense election season in the country. It is possible that Indonesian airwaves and newspapers were congested with news from the campaigns making it less likely of respondents to have formed an opinion about U.S. leadership when surveyed.

  • Vietnam: It might appear as though approval of U.S. leadership decreased in Vietnam since the last Gallup Poll: 44% of Vietnamese said they approved of U.S. leadership in 2008, but that decreased to 16% in 2009. However, the percentage of don't know and refused responses significantly increased from 2008 to 2009 (from 40% to 62%, respectively), and disapproval remained nearly the same (16% in 2008 and 22% in 2009).

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Polling in Vietnam in 2009 took place in April and May, after a quarter of record-slow economic growth. However, Vietnam still outperformed other countries in the region whose economies had actually contracted. As the U.S. continues to be the largest contributor to foreign direct investment in Vietnam, America's economic struggles may have left many Vietnamese feeling conflicted about U.S. leadership.

  • Singapore: In all of the previous years in which this question was asked, approval of U.S. leadership was relatively high, and it increased in the most recent poll in June 2009. In past polls, consistently more than 30% of respondents did not have an opinion about U.S. leadership, but opinions have crystallized somewhat since then, with fewer people saying don't know/refusing to answer the question in 2009 (19%).

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This decrease in don't know/refused responses in 2009 could reflect Singaporean confidence in the new U.S. administration's ability to handle the global economic crisis. Singapore's economy was hit hard in 2008 by falling demand of manufactured goods. The first quarter of 2009 was especially hard on the country with the worst recorded annual contraction recorded, but by the second quarter, when polling took place, the contraction had slowed, and it was apparent that the economy would grow throughout the rest of the year.

  • Philippines: Approval of U.S. leadership declined slightly, to 58% in 2009 from 66% in 2008, while disapproval increased to 26% from 18%. The percentage of Filipinos who did not express an opinion remained the same.

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The survey in the Philippines took place in June 2009 after several news stories involving the U.S. surfaced. In one highly publicized case, a U.S. serviceman was accused of raping a Filipino woman in November 2005, but under the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) he was transferred to the U.S. Embassy shortly after his conviction and acquitted in April 2009 when the victim changed her story. Shortly thereafter, U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates visited the Philippines; to some, his visit highlighted the controversy surrounding the special privileges granted to U.S. service people in the Philippines under the VFA.

  • Sri Lanka: Opinions of U.S. leadership held steady in Sri Lanka: In 2009, 36% approved of U.S. leadership (same as in 2008), 13% did not approve (12% in 2008), and roughly half (49%) did not express an opinion (50% in 2008). Don't know and refusal rates are well above the median for the region.

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The high rate of don't know/refused could reflect Sri Lanka's stance on non-alignment with or against any superpower or bloc, as well as a preoccupation with the 25-year civil war that intensified and then culminated during data collection. Also, the population of Sri Lanka is heavily rural and poor. Half of all rural respondents surveyed in Sri Lanka (52%) did not have an opinion about U.S. leadership, compared with 35% surveyed in urban areas who did not have an opinion.

  • Bangladesh: Opinions about U.S. leadership in 2009 remained nearly evenly divided among those surveyed in 2009: 38% approved, 32% disapproved, and 30% did not have an opinion.

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Bottom Line

As time goes on, Asians' views of the U.S. leadership could change and more people may express an opinion about it. At an Association of Southeast Asian Nations meeting in July, Secretary Clinton proclaimed that "the United States is back" in Asia, meaning that the Obama administration is ready to put an emphasis on strengthening ties in this region. A renewed interest in Asia could shift opinions about the new U.S. leadership, but in the beginning part of the year, many Asians had not yet formed an opinion either way. Gallup will release findings about U.S. leadership from several more Asian countries in the coming months.

For complete data sets or custom research from the more than 150 countries Gallup continually surveys, please contact worldpollpartners@gallup.com or call 202.715.3030.

Survey Methods

Results are based on face-to-face interviews with approximately 1,000 adults, aged 15 and older, conducted in April-June 2009, in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Pakistan, Philippines, Singapore, Sri Lanka, and Vietnam. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error ranged from a low of ±3.4 percentage points in Bangladesh to a high of ±4.1 percentage points in Sri Lanka. The margin of error reflects the influence of data weighting. In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

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