Commentary | 26 June 2019

Nation split on changing relationship between US, China

Originally published in The Australian.

Originally published in The Australian.

The annual Lowy Institute poll, released today, finds that Australians’ views of our two most important partners — our great ally, the US, and our leading trading partner, China — are souring.

Australians have long been sceptical of US President Donald Trump. Just one in four Australians have confidence in Trump to do the right thing in world affairs. This puts him below China’s Xi Jinping and above only Russia’s Vladimir Putin and North Korea’s Kim Jong-un.

In the past, Australians’ support for the alliance has tended to survive unpopular US administrations. This remains broadly true: despite their allergy to Trump, 72 per cent of Australians say our alliance with the US is very or fairly important for Australia’s security. However, the number who say the alliance is “very important” has dropped 10 points. And two-thirds of Australians say Trump has weakened the alliance.

The nationalism and protectionism that mark the Trump administration do not appeal to most Australians. Seven in 10 say free trade is good for their own standard of living and for the Australian economy. ­Although support for globalisation has decreased by six points since 2017, 72 per cent still say that globalisation is mostly good for Australia.

Almost half of the population believes the number of migrants is too high, but two-thirds say immigration has a positive impact on the economy.

Australians are divided on the changing relativities between the US and China and the implications for Australia. Almost half of the country (46 per cent, up nine points from 2015) now says the US is in decline relative to China and therefore the alliance is of decreasing importance. But 52 per cent disagree with this statement.

When asked about Canberra’s priorities in dealing with these two great powers, half the population says “the Australian government should put a higher priority on maintaining strong relations with the US, even if this might harm our relations with China”. However, 44 per cent say Australia should “put a higher priority on building stronger relations with China, even if this might harm our relations with the United States”.

Debate about foreign interference in Australian politics appears to have hit home: 49 per cent say foreign interference here is “a critical threat” to our vital interests, an increase of eight points.

Australians’ views of China are darkening. Trust in, and warmth towards, China are at their lowest points in Lowy polling. Less than a third of Australians trust China to act responsibly in the world (32 per cent, a precipitous 20-point fall from last year).

In the wake of Canberra’s ­decision to exclude ­Huawei from our 5G network, more Australians also prioritise protecting new technology from foreign intrusion as ­opposed to keeping prices down or bringing the most sophisticated technology to Australia.

Australians have expressed concerns about Chinese foreign investment for several years. But now, almost three-quarters of us also say we are too economically dependent on China.

China’s growing influence in our region also seems to concern Australians. Seven in 10 say we should try to prevent China from increasing influence in the Pacific. Following reports that China is on the hunt for a military base in the Pacific, 55 per cent say this would be a critical threat to our vital interests across the next decade.

However, even more Australians see climate change as a critical threat. This year, for the first time in the Lowy poll, climate change tops the list of possible threats. Almost two-thirds of Australians (64 per cent) say climate change is a critical threat to our vital interests in the next decade.

The upward trajectory for concern about climate change also continues: 61 per cent of Australians say “global warming is a serious and pressing problem” about which “we should begin taking steps now even if this involves significant costs”, a 25-point increase since 2012.

The 2019 Lowy Institute Poll has important messages for policymakers in Washington, Beijing - and Canberra.