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The Lowy Institute conducts significant research on public opinion around the world. Its long-standing public opinion polling program, the Lowy Institute Poll, has become an important input into Australian foreign policy since 2005.

To inform the public debate on Australia's foreign policy, the Institute has conducted annual polling of Australian public opinion on foreign policy since 2005. The annual Lowy Institute Poll has become one of the Lowy Institute’s flagship publications. It is the leading tracking survey on Australian foreign policy, providing a reliable vehicle for understanding Australian attitudes towards a wide range of foreign policy issues, while being independent and methodologically rigorous. Over the course of the past decade the Poll has uncovered significant shifts in public sentiment, including towards our most important neighbours and partners. It has tracked attitudes on contentious international issues ranging from climate change to China’s rise.

The annual Poll is entirely funded by the Lowy Institute to ensure its ongoing independence, and its questionnaire and results are thoroughly reviewed by independent consultants. Data sets are deposited with the Australian Social Science Data Archive where they are available free of charge for public scrutiny.

One of the best ways to explore the data from our sixteen years of polling is through our interactive site. Access the interactive here. Copies of the previous Lowy Institute polls are available here.

In addition to its Australian polling program, the Lowy Institute has conducted influential polls in several of our most important neighbours in Indo-Pacific Asia, including India (2012), Indonesia (2006 and 2011), New Zealand (2007 and 2012), China (2009) and Fiji (2011).

Experts

Natasha Kassam
Director, Public Opinion and Foreign Policy Program

Latest publications

The dangers in Australia’s blissful ignorance about India

A major headline from the 2021 Lowy Institute Poll is the dramatic decline in the Australian public’s assessment of China, continuing the trend already observed in previous years. While 52% of respondents said they trusted China to “act responsibly in the world” either “a great deal” or “somewhat” in 2018, in 2021 only 16% did so. Similarly, for the first time in 2021 almost two-thirds of the respondents (63%) view China as more of a security threat than an economic partner. Australia-China relations have certainly reached a nadir.

But what of the Australian public’s attitude to that other Asian great power, India?

Australia-India relations have never been better. The elevation of the bilateral relationship at the virtual leader’s summit in June 2020 to a “comprehensive strategic partnership” reflected the obvious chemistry on display between Prime Ministers Narendra Modi and Scott Morrison.

The two countries made meaningful progress to advance defence cooperation including the signing of a mutual logistics support arrangement, and an agreement to support collaboration between defence science and technology research organisations in both countries. This was followed by Australia’s long-awaited inclusion in the November 2020 Malabar naval exercises. Also significant was the commitment to boost broader science, technology and research to support responses to Covid-19 and to work together to reduce supply chain vulnerabilities exposed by the pandemic for critical health, technology and other goods and services. Finally, the “joint declaration on a shared vision for maritime cooperation in the Indo-Pacific” commits both countries to work together bilaterally to the promote a free, open, inclusive and “rules-based maritime order”.

Given these bilateral developments, one would expect greater public awareness of India’s importance and relevance to Australia, more so given the deteriorating relationship with Beijing. The latest Lowy Poll shows some indication of that.

In 2020, 61% of Australians said they trusted India “a great deal” or “somewhat” to act responsibly in the world, up from 45% in the previous year and on par with their views of the United States. Australians continued to display “warm feelings” toward India, too (measured on a 100 degree scale), which at 56 degrees represented a 4 degree increase from the previous year.

Less encouraging, however, were public perceptions of Modi, with only 38% of respondents saying that they had “some” or “a lot” of confidence in him to “do the right thing regarding world affairs”, representing a 4% fall from 2020. However, this must be interpreted alongside the striking finding that of all national leaders included in the survey, Modi was least known by the Australian public, with 30% of respondents either unsure or having “no view” of his political integrity.

Another noteworthy finding is that 81% of respondents viewed India as doing “too little” to combat climate change, only one point less than China, and 10 points worse than the United States. Given that respondents ranked climate change as the second highest “critical threat” to Australia’s vital interests in the next 10 years in 2021, the poor view of India in this regard could lead to current “warm feelings” dissipating.

While the questions asked in the Lowy Poll are directed toward unearthing the nuances of public opinion on the Australia-US and Australia-China relationships, the poll suggests the Australian public is not as aware or convinced about the strategic and economic significance of India as is the Australian government. Perhaps the best that can be said is that India and its leaders are neither seen by the Australian public as a significant problem for our national interests (apart from climate change.) The point is that the public do not consider India as a significant part of the solution to our deteriorating relationship with China.

This shallow public interest and understanding of India is unsurprising given the cursory and sporadic coverage that Indian politics is given in the Australian media. Most of what is reported is viewed through the prism of India-China border clashes, the intractable conflicts between India and Pakistan over Kashmir, or focused on crises of governance such as the Modi government’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

The poor view of India to combat climate change could lead to current “warm feelings” dissipating.

Little is written in the Australian media or academic/policy circles about India’s foreign policy, or its growing role as part of Australia’s free and open Indo-Pacific strategy. This includes the part it might play in the stated objectives of Australia’s 2020 Strategic Update to “shape Australia’s strategic environment”, “deter actions against Australia’s interests’ or “respond with credible military force”.

If correct, this situation presents short-term opportunities and longer-term dangers for government policy if the public’s blissful ignorance about and relative disinterest in India persists. On the upside, the government and policy elites will have a free hand to continue efforts to develop the Australia-India relationship with little need to manage or respond to public pushback. There is currently little evidence of any anti-India sentiment among the Australian public.

However, as Canberra reacts to ongoing Chinese coercion by putting more efforts into deepening the strategic and economic relationship with India, the public will need a better understanding of why the partnership with India is in our long-term interests even if there are short-term obstacles. This is especially important if China seeks to increase pressure on Australia as Canberra puts more emphasis on the bilateral relationship with India or on groupings such as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or “Quad”.

Public ignorance is rarely a sound basis for enduring and ambitious government policy. The Lowy Poll suggests the public conversation about India has only just started.

By the numbers: Charting the Australia-China relationship in decline

“China is angry. If you make China the enemy, China will be the enemy.” Or so said a Chinese government official speaking to an Australian reporter in November 2020. This comment came with the now infamous “14 grievances”, a list of what the official said were the obstacles to improvement in Australia-China relations.

But Australians too are unimpressed with China’s behaviour. The 2021 Lowy Institute Poll, released today, shows that trust and warmth towards China have fallen to yet another record low. On almost every question that has been asked about China in the 17 years of the poll, views have soured. The one exception is Covid-19 handling, where the number of Australians that say in 2021 that China has handled the pandemic “very” or “fairly well” increased by 14 points to 45%.

From month to month, the Australia-China relationship has gone from bad to worse.

From month to month, the Australia-China relationship has gone from bad to worse. The downward spiral, which dates from 2017, was accelerated by China’s furious response to Australia calling for an inquiry into the origins of Covid-19 in April 2020.

Australians are paying attention. Trust in China has plummeted – only 16% of Australians say that they trust China a great deal or somewhat to act responsibly in the world, a seven-point decline from 2020. This figure has plummeted in three years, halving since 2019 and now at a third of the level in 2018 when a majority of Australians (52%) said they trusted China.

It seems like a lifetime ago, but in 2014, China’s President Xi Jinping was delivering an address to Australia’s parliament about friendship and goodwill. Then, half the country (53%) didn’t know who Xi was. Fast forward to 2021 and only one in ten Australians have confidence in Xi to do the right thing regarding world affairs.

It was on that same visit in 2014 that Australia and China inked a free trade agreement, ten years in the making. But today, even views of China’s economic growth — historically a positive for Australians — have now shifted into negative territory.

For the past decade, Australian governments, businesses and publics alike placed China at the centre of our economic prosperity. Today, less than half the population (47%) say China’s economic growth has a positive influence on their view of China, a steep 28-point fall since 2016.

A year of economic coercion from China, directed at Australian businesses, has not gone unnoticed. As recently as three years ago, 82% of Australians saw China as “more of an economic partner to Australia”. Today, that number sits at 34%. By contrast, the majority of Australians (63%) see China as “more of a security threat to Australia” in 2021.

Australians are also concerned about China’s military. Almost all Australians (93%) see China’s military activities in our region as having a negative influence on their views of China, a 14-point increase from 2016. This comes at a time where the potential for a war over Taiwan is in the news: the majority of Australians (52%) say a military conflict between the United States and China over Taiwan poses a critical threat to Australia’s vital interests, a large bump of 17 points from 2020.

Nevertheless, the majority of Australians (57%) would prefer to stay neutral in conflict between the superpowers. This is consistent with past Lowy Institute polling that shows increasingly wariness of military engagement in hypothetical scenarios involving China. Four in ten (41%) say Australia should support the United States.

Positive views of China are few and far between in the Australian public. However most remain positive about Chinese people they have met, with 76% saying they had positively influenced their view of China. Similarly, seven in ten Australians (68%) say China’s culture and history have a positive influence on their view of China.

Still, the majority of Australians (56%) say that China is more to blame for the tensions that have plagued the bilateral relationship. A sizeable minority (38%) say that Australia and China are equally to blame. And Australians do have reservations about how the relationship has been handled, marking the Coalition government 5.1 out of 10.

Few incentives are obvious that will lead to a change of course. With public opinion towards China at rock bottom, and Prime Minister Scott Morrison tabling the “14 grievances” at the G7, the decline in the Australia-China relationship seems set only to deepen.

US-Australia alliance a friendship, not a love affair

At first glance, the 2021 Lowy Institute Poll, released today, tells a positive story about how Australians view a post-Donald Trump America: trust in the United States to behave responsibly in the world has rebounded to 61% (an increase of 10 points from last year), and nearly 70% of Australians trust President Joe Biden to behave responsibly in the world – a dramatic shift from the 30% who trusted President Trump.

However, a consideration of trust levels in the United States since 2006 suggests that along with relief over the election of Joe Biden, there is a pronounced wariness among the Australian public about an ally that has also brought a lot of heartache.

For example, consider that the current percentage of Australians who trust the United States to behave responsibly in the world is approximately the same as the percentage of Australians who trusted the United States during two distinctly troubling periods in the recent past:

  • In 2006, when the situation in Iraq had deteriorated to the point that the outbreak of an Iraqi civil war appeared likely and President George W Bush remained committed to his existing policy;
  • In 2017, following America’s election of an isolationist president who planned to withdraw the United States from international treaties and multilateral obligations (trust declined further over the three years of Donald Trump’s presidency and registered a low of 51% in 2020, explaining the 10-point jump in 2021).

It seems unlikely that Joe Biden, a well-known and well-liked moderate Democrat, would preside over an America that induced the level of disillusionment among Australians that we would associate with these two earlier periods. More likely, the 61% of those who trust Biden in the 2021 Poll reflects the cumulative effect of Australians feeling over-exposed and vulnerable to America’s wars and exhausting domestic politics over the past 20 years.

Australia experienced a relatively low number of casualties in America’s post-9/11 wars. But the Australian public has experienced war differently than the American public. Despite committing military forces to every major US-led intervention (and making its own deployments to East Timor and Solomon Islands), Australia had not lost a soldier in combat since the end of the Vietnam War until 2002 in Afghanistan.

Further, the then-Prime Minister John Howard’s decision to commit Australian military forces to the war in Iraq in 2003 led to a meaningful divide on defence policy between the Labor and Liberal parties, and among the public, that was an unusual and generally unwelcome development in Australian politics. Lowy polls from the past decade highlight that only a small percentage of Australians believe that involvement in either the Afghanistan or the Iraq wars was worth the costs.

Turning to America’s exhausting domestic politics, the past 20 years have tested the patience of America’s closest friends. Intense partisan polarisation became evident during the George W Bush administration, was operationalised into legislative dysfunction during the Obama years, and then directly undermined American democracy during the Trump years.

But it is important to acknowledge that inside this post-9/11 period, Australians also witnessed an America that voted twice for a liberal black man named Barack Hussein Obama, and expectations of America surged. Lowy Polls show that Australians’ confidence in the United States to behave responsibly in the world reached 83% during the Obama years.

75% of Australians believe the United States would come to Australia’s defence if Australia were under threat.

So, what does Australians’ wariness and disillusionment mean for the alliance with America? Maybe not much, for now. Responses to questions on the alliance in the 2021 Lowy Poll are consistent with past years: 78% view the ANZUS alliance as important to Australia’s security and 76% agree that Australians and Americans share many common values and ideals. Similarly, 75% of Australians believe the United States would come to Australia’s defence if Australia were under threat.

As a harbinger of things to come, this year’s Poll did find a significant generational divide on certain questions, with Australians under 30 being less likely to trust the United States and more likely to believe the alliance is less important because the United States is in decline.

Also, a majority of Australians – 58%, down from 66% in 2019 – agree with the statement, “Donald Trump has weakened the alliance with the United States”. But it is not clear how he weakened the alliance since overall support levels for the alliance have remained high.

Perhaps a level of trust in the United States that sits around 61% is appropriate. It is better than it was, but it is not as good as it has been because Australians have gained, though disappointment, a more pragmatic view of America. And you can still be good mates with someone you see clearly.

Under President Barack Obama (pictured at Bagram Air Field in Afghanistan in 2012), Australians’ trust of America to act responsibly in the world was at its peak, registering 83% in the Lowy Institute Poll (Pete Souza/White House/Flickr)

Fear of military conflict on the rise in Australia

In an opinion piece originally published in The Australian newspaper, Lowy Institute director of public opinion and foreign policy Natasha Kassam and research director Alex Oliver describe how the pandemic, China’s behaviour, and a change in US leadership have catalysed some rapid shifts in Australians' views of the world.

Being Chinese in Australia: Public Opinion in Chinese Communities

Amid debates on foreign interference, Australia-China relations and the COVID-19 pandemic, the Lowy Institute’s Multiculturalism, Identity and Influence Project conducted a nationally representative poll of Chinese-Australians in November 2020 to better understand their outlook on life in Australia, relationship with China and views on foreign influence. The survey finds a broad diversity of experiences and perspectives across Chinese-Australian communities. There is both continuity and divergence when these sentiments are compared to the broader Australian population.

Explore the interactive site here.

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