WEEKS after being elected Prime Minister, Tony Abbott held talks with his Japanese counterpart Shinzo Abe. “As far as I’m concerned, Japan is Australia’s best friend in Asia,” he said.
It seems Australians, however, do not completely agree with the PM. In the 2014 Lowy Institute Poll, released today, Australians say that China and Japan have equal claims to the title of “Australia’s best friend in Asia”, with 31 per cent nominating China and 28 per cent agreeing with Abbott that Japan is “Australia’s best friend in Asia” in a statistically equivalent result within the poll’s error margin.
This was just one of the intriguing findings from the 2014 poll, which now has 10 years of data on how Australians feel about the world.
Sentiments towards China have returned to an all-time equal high of 60 degrees on our annual “feelings towards other countries” thermometer: surprisingly warmer than the 54-degree measurement last year and now on par with our feelings towards Papua New Guinea, South Korea and East Timor.
Yet Australians hold very ambivalent feelings towards their joint best friend. This may spring in part from a lack of familiarity or awareness: most Australians (64 per cent) either have no view or don’t know Chinese President Xi Jinping when asked whether or not they admire him — only 17 per cent say they admire him. And almost half (48 per cent) of the Australian population say it is “likely that China will become a military threat to Australia in the next 20 years”. This is remarkable: one in two Australians think we may be in a military conflict within two decades with our largest trading partner — a country many see today as our best friend in Asia.
A majority of Australians (56 per cent) also believe Canberra allows too much investment from China, a result that may spell trouble for the federal government’s efforts to strike a free trade deal with China by the end of the year. Australians remain generally nervous about foreign investment, whatever the investor’s nationality. The majority oppose foreign investment in “ports and airports” and “agriculture”, in Qantas and in the National Broadband Network. The only investments the majority of Australians are comfortable with are in manufacturing and the financial sector.
Relations with Jakarta have been under strain this year due to friction over asylum-seeker policy as well as the Snowden allegations that Australia spied on the Indonesian President and his wife.
Australians strongly support turning back boats when safe to do so: 71 per cent agree with this. And 62 per cent think it is quite acceptable for Australia to spy on Indonesia. But any official disagreements have not altered Australians’ feelings towards Indonesia. Australians have the same middling regard for Indonesia they’ve always had, with Indonesia scoring a tepid 52 degrees on our “thermometer of feelings” alongside Burma and Israel.
When it comes to espionage, we don’t just have Indonesia in our sights. Australians seem happy to spy on adversaries and friends alike. Most (70 per cent) say it’s acceptable to spy on the “governments of countries with which Australia does not have good relations”. Many (65 per cent) think it is also OK to spy on our largest trading partner China, our ally the US (54 per cent), our neighbours East Timor (60 per cent) and New Zealand (51 per cent).
Finally, climate change is emerging as a challenge for the Abbott government. Our polls revealed declining concern about climate change between 2006 -12. This year our polling shows that this trend line has turned. Some 45 per cent of Australians (up five points this year and nine points since 2012) say that “global warming is a serious and pressing problem. We should begin taking steps now even if this involves significant costs”. And 63 per cent say the government should take a leadership role on reducing carbon emissions, with only 28 per cent saying it should wait for an international consensus.
A successful foreign policy needs to be grounded in public support. While the Abbott government appears to have struck a chord with some of its early international moves (such as turning back boats and not apologising for spying), it faces a tougher argument on climate policy. And in handling a complex set of relations with the US, China and Japan, it will need to be very deft to prosecute the national interest in a way that also satisfies public opinion.
Michael Fullilove is executive director of the Lowy Institute. Alex Oliver, polling director at the institute, is author of the 2014 Lowy Institute Poll. Download it for free at www.lowyinstitute.org