New poll shows Australians’ trust in China reached a new low in 2021

Lowy Institute released its annual poll for 2021 on June 22, which shows that as the relationship between Australia and China continues to worsen, more than 60% of the respondents view China as a security threat for the first time in 2021, while that percentage has also surpassed the number of respondents that view China as an economic partner for the first time.

In the 2021 poll, 63% of the respondents in Australia view China as a security threat, which is a 22% increase from the previous year. In contrast, only 34% of the respondents view China as an economic partner, which is a 21% decrease comparing to 2020.

According to Natasha Kassam, Director of the Public Opinion and Foreign Policy program at Lowy Institute, the change in Australians’ attitudes on economic issues related to China is related to the campaign of economic coercion that Beijing has launched against Australia’s export industry over the last year.

“Australians are now clearly aware of some of the vulnerabilities that they have when they have such a close economic relationship with China,” she said.

Since last year, China has imposed import bans on several products from Australia and in an unprecedented move, Beijing announced that it will suspend the strategic economic dialogue with Australia last month. The series of moves have forced the bilateral economic and trade relationship to drop to a new low.

Growing awareness about the military threat from China

Additionally, 93% of the respondents think China’s military activities in the region have a negative influence on their views of China, which is a 14% increase from 2016. If military conflicts broke out between China and the US, 57% of the respondents think Australia should remain neutral while 41% of the respondents think Australia should support the US.

A similar change in Australians’ view on the military threat posed by China is also reflected in the issue of a military conflict across the Taiwan Strait between the US and China. 52% of the respondents think the war is a critical threat to Australia’s interest.

Natasha Kassam said over the last few years, Australians have learned more about China’s military, the South China Sea, and China’s military incursion into the Taiwan Strait.

“I think part of it is growing awareness and part of it is also when Australians are feeling threatened by the whole relationship that can influence how they view lots of different things,” she said. “It clearly means that the possibility of such conflict has moved to the front of Australians’ mind.”

Kassam also pointed out that when asked about Australia’s potential involvement in a war between China and the US, more respondents want Canberra to remain neutral.

“That is not surprising if we look at past polling data that has shown Australians being increasingly reluctant to follow the United States into war,” she said. “That’s largely related to disillusionment about what happened in Afghanistan.”

However, as Australia becomes more active in participating in some regional security initiatives, Kassam said the percentage of Australians considering the country to be part of the Indo-Pacific region has also increased. The poll in 2021 shows that 38% of the respondents think Australia belongs to the Indo-Pacific region, which is a phrase that Australia didn’t use just a few years ago.

On the other hand, the poll also shows that Australians’ trust in Japan and India has increased a lot over the last year. 87% of the respondents say they trust Japan and 61% of the respondents say they trust India. “Australians’ trust in all three QUAD partners have increased significantly in the past year and I would guess part of that is in reaction to China,” said Kassam.

The difference between the Chinese government and its people

Lowy also asked respondents which factors do they think are threats to Australia’s vital interests and 56% of the respondents think the Sino-Australia relationship is a vital threat to Australia’s interests. In another opinion poll released by Lowy last November, 82% of respondents expressed concern towards the degree of China’s influence on Australian politics.

Kassam said China’s aggressive diplomacy towards Australia has clearly hardened the attitude of the Australian public and politicians. “ It’s fairly clear that the majority of Australians are supportive of the approach that Australia has taken to China policies,” she said.

While Australians are generally supportive of the government’s hardened policies towards China, most respondents still have very positive views about Chinese people and Chinese culture. “This shows that Australians are still able to distinguish between foreign policy coming from Beijing and Chinese people,” she said.

This piece was first published in Mandarin on DW’s Chinese website.

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William Yang

William Yang is a journalist based in Taiwan, where he writes about politics, society, and human rights issues in China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong.