When Australians were asked to nominate 'Australia's best friend in Asia' in the 2014 Lowy Institute Poll, 31% placed China and 28% placed Japan in a statistical dead heat, far ahead of Singapore, Indonesia, India and South Korea. The response 'don't know' made sense to 11% of those asked.
Australians were once accustomed to lofty epithets like 'great and powerful friends' when referring to the US or the UK. In the social media era it's not surprising we're asked to identify our 'best friend', but what core values or sentiments are implied?
The Lowy Poll raises some interesting if not downright confusing ideas about what a 'bestie' means in international relations in 2014.
It's not about trust. Respondents think it's acceptable to spy on 'best friends' like China (65%) and Japan (58%), while 48% believe China will likely become a military threat to Australia in the next 20 years. This is a significant increase on past years and only 2% 'don't know' the answer. Of those polled, 56% fear the Australian Government is allowing too much investment from China.
Then there's the Poll's annual thermometer gauge, which asks respondents to rate the warmth of their feelings towards each listed country. Countries scoring above 70° are those more similar to ourselves, like New Zealand, Canada, US and a few European nations. Japan is steady at 67°, leading China at 60°, six points warmer than 2013.
So what are we thinking when we select China as one of our two 'best friends' in Asia, while indicating fear of China and warmer feelings towards Japan?
It is easy to identify influences that might propel China to the forefront of respondents' minds. For one thing, China's economic growth has been a cover story for the past decade, spawning relentless media coverage. Australia's economic symbiosis or dependence must also influence this selection. As pragmatists, and as a gambling nation, maybe we consider China the next sure thing, our just our best option. Is it a question of fashion and emerging alpha country syndrome?
Are we juggling our economic options while holding tight to our security dependency on the US which also links us with our proven partner, Japan, in a highly prized security triangle? Are we simply being absorbed into Xi Jinping's great 'China Dream'? Another explanation lies in the fact that the Poll's respondents, particularly the younger ones, expressed disillusionment with democracy, a degree of tolerance for alternative forms of government and desire for a strong economy. China fits that picture.
So what do the Poll results tell us about the direction Australian foreign policy should be moving in over the coming years?
The skill of diplomacy lies in counterparts working to deliver fruitful outcomes for each country and its people through focusing on common or overlapping interests. It never was possible, nor desirable, for an adage like Prime Minister Harold Holt's 'all the way with LBJ' to hold true. There are always differences to be worked through between even the best of friends – some fundamental, some by degree or nuance.
Since the dark days of the Pacific war, Australians have developed a broad-based relationship with Japan that the Lowy Poll 'feelings' thermometer gauges well. Australians have also worked hard to strengthen broad-ranging goodwill engagement with China since formal relations were established in 1972.
Identifying any one country as our 'best friend' in Asia can hinder broad national interests. Such an approach erodes our integrity of purpose and invites proliferation of unbalanced assumptions.
Ideally, Australia's leaders will consistently articulate a strategic Asian vision capable of enhancing trade and investment, political, security, cultural, scientific and educational outcomes with all Asian countries. Australia's Asian partners, particularly China and Japan, prefer not to put all their eggs in any one basket. Neither should Australia.