Over the course of Lowy Institute polling, Australians have expressed a complex range of attitudes towards China. On the one hand, China is Australia’s largest trading partner and an important contributor to Australia’s prosperity. On the other hand, many Australians are wary of China and its intentions.
This year, there has been a sharp rise in the proportion of the Australian population who say the Australian government is ‘allowing too much investment from China’. Almost three quarters (72%, up from 56% in 2014) now take this view.
Since 2017, there has been a lively public debate about the threat of foreign interference in Australia’s political processes, with revelations of connections between wealthy Chinese donors and Australian politicians. Despite the intensity of this debate, Australians do not appear to be particularly concerned about the possibility that such connections are a threat to Australian democracy. ‘Foreign interference in Australian politics’ is seen as a critical threat by a minority (41%) of Australians. It ranks lower in threat perceptions than terrorism (66%), North Korea’s nuclear program (66%), climate change (58%), the threat of cyberattacks (57%), prospect of a global economic downturn (50%).
Although public debate in 2017 revolved around the threat of Chinese influence, Australians’ concerns appear to be focused on foreign influence generally, rather than the threat posed by China specifically. When asked about influence from both China and the United States in Australia’s political processes, only marginally more Australians (63%) expressed concern about China than those concerned about the influence of the United States (58%).
CHINA AS A MILITARY THREAT
As in eight consecutive years previously, a significant proportion of the Australian population sees China as a potential military threat to Australia in the future. In 2018, 46% of Australians say it is likely that ‘China will become a military threat to Australia in the next 20 years’.
The primary reason for this wariness is the perception that Australia may be drawn into a conflict between the United States and China in the region. When asked why they ‘personally think China will become a military threat to Australia in the next 20 years’, 77% of those who see China as a likely military threat agree with the statement that ‘China and the United States are likely to come into conflict in the future and Australia will end up being drawn into the conflict through its alliance with the United States’. Seven in ten (70%) agree that ‘China’s recent actions have been assertive and suggest it is going to be a militarily aggressive power’. Fewer, but still a majority (65%), agree that ‘China has been expanding and modernising its military, suggesting it is preparing for conflict’.
Asked whether China is ‘more of an economic partner’ to Australia or ‘more of a military threat’, a solid majority (82% – up three points from 2017) see China as ‘more of an economic partner’. Only 12% (almost unchanged from 13% in 2017) see it as ‘more of a military threat’.
WORLD’S LEADING ECONOMIC POWER
Australians’ embrace of China as an economic partner probably stems from their perception of it as a global economic powerhouse. More than half (55%) think China is the ‘world’s leading economic power’, with just 29% seeing the United States as the leading economy. Very few (7%) say ‘the countries of the European Union’ are the world’s leading economic power, although the European Union has the second-largest GDP, on an exchange rate basis, after that of the United States and ahead of China.
CHINA AND US RELATIONS
At a time when the United States and a rising China are fast becoming strategic competitors in the region, there is an increasing debate about whether Australia will eventually be forced to choose between the United States, as its alliance partner, and China, as its largest trading partner. However, around eight in ten (81%) Australians would disagree, saying it is ‘possible for Australia to have a good relationship with China and a good relationship with the United States at the same time’. While this is a six-point drop from the 87% who said this in 2013, it remains a very strong majority. Only 13% say it is not possible for Australia to maintain good relationships with both.