It's likely 2016 will be remembered as a year of polls: the Brexit poll this week, the Australian election on 2 July, the US presidential election in November, and even a UN poll to select the next Secretary-General by year end.
The 2016 Lowy Institute Poll, released today, may not be quite on the same scale, but it's an important touchstone on how Australians are thinking about the world. This year, those views appear to be at a critical juncture.
Over the 12 years of Lowy Institute Polling (the first Lowy Poll was taken in 2005), Australians have generally been warm on our close friends in the English-speaking world when asked to rank their feelings towards various countries on a 'thermometer' scale of 0 to 100 degrees. New Zealand, the UK, the US, Canada and Ireland always come top or close to the top when we include them on the thermometer. We have been warm on like-minded nations in Europe and in our region: France, Germany, Japan, Netherlands, Spain, Singapore. We have warm to warmish feelings towards our Pacific neighbours: Fiji, Solomons, East Timor, Papua New Guinea. We have had middling to lukewarm sentiments about a bunch of countries in our region such as Indonesia, India, Malaysia, Vietnam, Taiwan and South Korea. We are cold on the usual suspects: North Korea, Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, and Libya.
And then there is China.
When we ask Australians about China it's always a complicated story. This year, however, it's more complicated than ever, and Australians' attitudes seem to have reached a turning point.
China, our largest trading partner since 2007, is now our 'best friend in Asia', according to Australian adults: 30% nominate China and 25% nominate Japan when we ask them to name our best friend in Asia. Two years ago, when we last asked this question, China and Japan tied for first place. Yet on the 'feelings thermometer', Australians have always expressed warmer feelings towards Japan than towards China. This year, Japan is rated at 70° and China at 58°. This prompts the question: what exactly do Australians mean by 'friendship', where China is concerned?
China may be our best friend in Asia as of this year, and our largest trading partner since 2007, but it's a friend about which Australians have some serious reservations.
When asked about positive and negative influences on their views of China, Australians are overwhelmingly positive about the Chinese people (85% saying 'Chinese people you have met' are a positive influence), China's culture and history (a positive for 79%), and China's economic growth (a positive for 75%). However, there are some strong negatives too: 86% say 'China's human rights record' is a negative, 79% say 'China's military activities in our region' are a negative, and 73% say China's system of government is a negative. Its environmental record and investment in Australia are also negative influences.
As an illustration of this high level of anxiety about China, a substantial 74% of Australians are in favour of Australia conducting freedom of navigation operations in response to China's activities in the South China Sea.
On the other side of the Asia Pacific is our other important partner, the US. Australian support for the US alliance has been one of the most consistent features of our polling. The proportion of the Australian population saying the alliance is either 'very', 'fairly' or 'somewhat' important for Australia's security has never slipped below 90% since we first asked this question in 2005. Australians always rate the US quite warmly on the feelings thermometer, with results ranging from a high of 73° last year to a low of 60° in 2007 (towards the end of the George W Bush presidency). This year, it's 68° — down 5°, making the US the only country to record a fall of any significance on the 2016 Lowy Institute thermometer. The alliance too has lost support: 71% say the alliance is 'very' or 'fairly' important for Australia's security. Still high, but down nine points on last year to a nine-year low in Lowy polling history.
Two years ago, when we asked Australians for the first time which relationship was more important — that with the US, or that with China — the US was the clear leader; 48% said the US, and 37% said China was the more important relationship in 2014. Two years later, however, it's a dead heat: in 2016, exactly the same number say China (43%) as say the US (43%) is the more important relationship.
But it's complicated. The Australian population is split down the middle on this question. Younger Australians (under 45) lean towards China, 51% saying it's the more important relationship, with 35% of that age group saying the US is more important. Older Australians (45 and over) see the US relationship as more important, with only 36% of them choosing China.
While we are divided between China and the US and many of us are anxious about China's intentions, we also appear to be quite concerned about what's going on in US politics at the moment. Nearly half (45%) of us say Australia should distance itself from the US if Donald Trump becomes president. Around half (51%) say we should remain close regardless of who is elected president; not a decisive vote of confidence and a result which suggests that the Trump factor may be having an impact on Australian support for the alliance.
Trump is not at all popular here: only 11% of Australians say they would prefer Trump as president, in results from separate Lowy polling in June; 77% prefer Hillary Clinton. And nearly six in ten (59%) say they would be less likely to support Australia 'taking future military action in coalition with the US under Donald Trump' if he wins the presidency.
Our 2016 polling also has results on the other big votes this year. On the Australian election, the Liberal-Nationals Coalition wins hands down on foreign policy, with Australians preferring it to handle seven of eight key foreign policy issues including national security, the alliance, the economy and asylum seekers. Labor is preferred only on the issue of climate change.
Australians are also decidedly against Brexit, with 51% in the 'remain' camp, against only 19% on the side of the 'leavers'. And on the last of the big votes this year, Australians are in two minds about Kevin Rudd as UN Secretary-General: 46% saying he would make a good Secretary-General, and 49% saying he would not.
Drawing on the last 12 years of data, this year's Poll highlights some important shifts in the way Australians are thinking about the world and our major global relationships. Our political leaders have their work cut out for them after 2 July.