Commentary | 21 June 2017

Almost half of us fear China could become a threat

Originally published in The Australian.

  • Michael Fullilove
  • Alex Oliver

Originally published in The Australian.

  • Michael Fullilove
  • Alex Oliver

The past year has been unsettling for Australians. First came Brexit, then the election of Donald Trump and, soon after, the President’s awkward encounter with Malcolm Turnbull. A series of terrorist incidents has shaken our equanimity.

It comes as no surprise, therefore, that the annual Lowy Institute Poll, released today, has found that most Australian adults are disillusioned with the direction the world is taking and their trust in the US has declined. But, despite this bleak outlook, Australians remain surprisingly positive about globalisation, trade and Australia’s engagement with the rest of the world.

Australians stand apart from the trend towards nationalism and protectionism that has been gathering force in other parts of the West. The poll finds a clear majority of Australian adults (78 per cent) who say globalisation is “mostly good” for Australia, considerably more than said this in 2006 (64 per cent).

Most Australians also think free trade is good for their standard of living and for the Australian economy, and majorities say it is good for Australian companies and for creating jobs. Australians are more satisfied than their American cousins with the way their nation is travelling, and more positive about globalisation and international trade.

However, Australians’ attitudes towards our great ally have taken a hit, and Trump appears to be the cause. Almost all Australians would have preferred Hillary Clinton to have won the US election, with 77 per cent preferring her as president and 84 per cent saying she would do a better job with foreign policy in last year’s polling. Now that Trump has become president, our latest poll finds six in 10 Australians say he causes them to have an unfavourable opinion of the US. He is particularly unpopular among young people (70 per cent saying he’s a negative factor in their opinion of the US) and women (68 per cent).

Trump’s election has coincided with a hollowing out of Australians’ trust of the US. Only 20 per cent trust the US “a great deal” to act responsibly in the world — half the number from 2011. The 61 per cent of Australians who trust the US overall compares to the 90 per cent who trust Britain, 86 per cent who trust Germany and 86 per cent who trust Japan. Furthermore, the number of Australians who see the US as Australia’s best friend in the world has halved since 2014 to 17 per cent.

For the moment, however, the Trump presidency has not dented Australians’ support for the US alliance or their affinity with that country. Before the election last year, there were fears that Australians’ distaste for Trump was so strong that it would undermine Australia’s security relationship.

However, today’s poll has found that support for the alliance has rebounded after a significant nine point drop last year, and more than three-quarters of Australians (77 per cent) say the alliance is “very” or “fairly” important for our security. Australians’ warmth towards the US has steadied after a record five-point drop last year.

Australians also are uncomfortable about the behaviour of America’s geopolitical rival China. Today’s poll finds that Australians’ fear of China as a potential military threat has increased again, with almost half of Australians (46 per cent) saying it is likely “China will become a military threat to Australia in the next 20 years”. Even so, Australians continue to see China as vital to us. China remains tied with the US as our most important relationship — 45 per cent choose the US, two points above China, in a statistically inseparable result. And despite their concerns, most Aus­tralians (79 per cent) continue to see China as more of an economic partner than a military threat.

Terrorism still concerns Australians. It remains the highest ranked of 11 possible threats to Australia’s vital interests together with North Korea’s nuclear program, and 61 per cent of us support the use of Australian military ­forces to fight against Islamic extremism in Iraq and Syria.

Australians also are concerned about climate change, which ranks third in our list of 11 serious threats. Fifty-seven per cent of Australians say climate change is a critical threat to the vital interests of Australia (up 11 points since 2014), with 87 per cent overall seeing it as a critical or important threat. On this measure, climate change ranks higher as a critical threat to the nation than does a severe economic downturn, foreign investment in Australia, asylum-seeker arrivals, and the foreign policies of China and Russia.

America’s withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement will worry many Australians, most of whom were in favour of commitments from the Australian government in the Paris negotiations back in 2015.

These climate concerns help explain our findings that even though energy security is high on the political agenda, Australians express a clear preference for renewables over fossil fuels. An emphatic majority (81 per cent) wants the government to focus on renewables, “even if this means we may need to invest more in infrastructure to make the system more reliable”. Only 17 per cent say the government should focus on coal and gas.

The Lowy Institute Poll 2017 reports the results of a nationally representative telephone survey of 1200 Australian adults between March 1 and 21 by the Social Research Centre on behalf of the Lowy Institute. The error margin is approximately +/- 2.8%.