Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Australians worry about China and muscle-flexing over Taiwan

New polling shows Beijing and its intentions have overtaken climate, Covid and cyberattacks as major concerns.

Chinese President Xi Jinping addresses the Party School of the CPC Central Committee National Academy of Governance, 1 March 2022 (Liu Bin/Xinhua via Getty Images)
Chinese President Xi Jinping addresses the Party School of the CPC Central Committee National Academy of Governance, 1 March 2022 (Liu Bin/Xinhua via Getty Images)

“China’s development is an opportunity instead of a threat to Australia,” claimed China’s Ambassador to Australia at a recent address in Sydney. “There is every reason for China and Australia to be friends and partners, rather than adversaries or enemies.”

This is not the view, however, of the Australian public. The 2022 Lowy Institute Poll, released today, shows that two-thirds of Australians (63%) say China is “more of a security threat” to Australia, while 33% say China is “more of an economic partner” to Australia.

As concerns over foreign influence, economic coercion, human rights and militarisation have characterised the bilateral relationship between Australia and China, Australian public opinion towards China has continued on a negative trajectory. Trust, warmth and confidence in China and China’s leader started to decline in 2017, and remain at record lows in 2022.

Only 12% of Australians say they trust China somewhat or a great deal, a 40-point decrease since 2018. Just 11% of Australians say they have a lot or some confidence in President Xi Jinping to do the right thing regarding world affairs. This figure has halved since 2020 and has fallen by 32 points since 2018.

Australians are increasingly concerned about China’s military expansion, and are now more likely to see China as becoming a military threat to Australia. Setting a new record by some margin, three-quarters of Australians (75%) say it is very or somewhat likely that China will become a military threat to Australia in the next 20 years, an increase of 29 points since 2018.

Anxiety about China at home is also reflected in anxiety about conflict in the region. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has made the prospect of war in Asia more real for many Australians.

Six in ten Australians (64%) say “a military conflict between the United States and China over Taiwan” poses a critical threat to Australia’s vital interests in the next ten years, a dramatic 29-point increase since 2020.

A potential conflict over Taiwan, as well as the foreign policies of Russia and China, now sit at the top of the list of threats to Australia’s interests. In recent years, top threats for Australians have been climate change, cyberattacks and Covid-19.

There are mixed views in the Australian public as to how the nation should respond to a conflict between the great powers. Half the Australian public are reluctant to be involved in such a hypothetical, with 51% saying that Australia should remain neutral in a military conflict between the United States and China. A large minority (46%) say Australia should support the United States in such a conflict, and 1% say Australia should support China.

However, Australians appear to see a conflict involving Taiwan differently. In 2022, for the first time, the majority of Australians (51%) would favour using the Australian military “if China invaded Taiwan and the United States decided to intervene”. This marks an eight-point increase since the question was last asked in 2019.

As attitudes towards China have chilled, Australians have felt increasingly warm towards Taiwan. In 2018, China and Taiwan were seen equally warmly by the Australian public on the Lowy Institute feelings thermometer. In 2022, there are 30 degrees separating them, with Taiwan registering a very warm 64° and China at an icy 33°.

This comes at a time when Australians are more supportive of democracy at home, and more likely to recognise democracies in our region. Seven in ten Australians (68%) agree Taiwan is a democracy, a 15-point increase from 2020. By contrast, although China has released a number of white papers and statements lauding its own type of democracy, only 7% of Australians agree China is a democracy, a three-point decline in the past two years.

In these uncertain times, Australians are looking to the United States for security. Nine in ten Australians (87%) say Australia’s alliance with the United States is “very important” or “fairly important” to Australia’s security. This marks a nine-point increase from 2021, and is equal to the highest levels of support expressed in 2012, during former President Barack Obama’s administration.

But this support for the United States is not without reservation. More than three-quarters of Australians (77%, up eight points from 2019) agree that “Australia’s alliance with the United States makes it more likely Australia will be drawn into a war in Asia that would not be in Australia’s interests”.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has brought home for many the possibility that China may follow through on its threats to Taiwan. Most Australians worry about rising tensions in the region, and are feeling unsafe at this moment.

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