The 2015 Lowy Institute Poll reveals a great deal about Australian attitudes towards China, both in terms of our bilateral relationship, but also how China fits into our broader sense of economic and political security alongside other actors such as the US.
It would appear that values and ideals play a considerable role in Australians' attitudes and approaches to world affairs.
The Poll's findings show that most Australians are strongly wedded to Anglo connections, particularly with the US, UK and New Zealand. These countries, as always, rank highly on the 'feelings thermometer' at 73°, 79° and 83° respectively (feelings towards China are at 58°, fairly consistent but lower than Japan, which at 68° is the highest ranked Asian country).
For Australians, values seem to matter in our international relations – in regards to our relationship with the US, the 2015 poll suggests that Australians' support for the US alliance is seen as a natural extension of our shared values and ideals (77%). The poll suggests that most Australians want to put our money where our mouths are when it comes to defending our beliefs. Indeed, 66% of Australians this year feel that 'Australia should do more to resist China's military aggression in our region, even if this affects our economic relationship'.
Values and ideals aside momentarily, Australians are also pragmatic.
Indeed, 70% agree that without the US alliance, Australia would have to spend a lot more money on its defence. At the same time, while most Australians reject the notion that the US is in decline relative to China (37% think the US is in relative decline; the figure was 41% in 2011), around a quarter (27%) think it will play a less important role as a world leader in the future. However, not many see its power increasing either – around 61% say it will play about as important a role as it does now, whereas only 10% think it will play a more important role.
While Australians seem to largely trust the US, based on shared values and ideals, we are far less certain about China. Australians have conflicting views about how we understand China, what its intentions are, and what it means for us. Australians see China as having multiple aims, some more benign than others: the number of us who feel that China wants to dominate Asia (61%) is not that far off our feeling that the Chinese Government aims 'to create a better life for Chinese people' (67%). We are alert but not really alarmed about China in the South China Sea and the potential for conflict there, despite an increasingly heated narrative around China's growing assertiveness.
Additionally, fewer of us than last year feel that China is likely to pose a direct military threat to us in the next 20 years. Just over half (56%) of respondents think that having China as an important global power does not make the world more stable.
However, despite, or perhaps because of these uncertainties, Australians are keen to hedge their bets and play it safe with China. While around half feel that we shouldn't try to limit China's influence, 73% agree that 'Australia should develop closer relations with China as it grows in influence'. It is now the majority view (although only just, at 52%) that Australia should not join with other countries to limit China's influence.
When it comes to Australians' feelings towards China, the Poll suggests we're not quite sure who this guy is, or what he wants, but all the same we reckon we had better be on the same team with him as he becomes more powerful – a view which underpinned our decision to become a founding member of the AIIB, despite US disapproval.
But we certainly don't want to be out there alone – we want our trusted friend the US alongside us. We trust the US not just on the basis of signed bits of paper or confidence building measures, but because of an understanding that we hold fundamentally shared views. In contrast, the lack of trust between Australia and China, and China and the US, continues to pose challenges to our relationship.
Given the objective differences in values systems and worldviews between China and Australia, the issue of how to build a trusting relationship is a difficult one. We may have to rely less on shared values and more on appreciating and understanding the differences.
Photo courtesy of Flickr user Zhu.