Published daily by the Lowy Institute

The middle power alignment in public attitudes about Covid-19

Beijing is on the nose, leading the Western world to band together, but not with Washington at the fore.

Which direction? (Ozan Kose/AFP via Getty Images)
Which direction? (Ozan Kose/AFP via Getty Images)

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Australia, Canada and European countries have been cooperating together more in initiatives and groupings without the United States or China. Public opinion supports this uptick in middle power cooperation in the face of the aggressive Xi Jinping administration and Trump administration, and the more virulent US-China rivalry.

On 14 May, the Lowy Institute released a poll on Australian views of responses to the Covid-19 pandemic that makes bad reading in Beijing and worse reading in Washington. A poll on the same subject by Angus Reid in Canada released the day before offered similar results. Add to this a recent poll in Germany.

Deliveries of protective equipment and medical supplies this month from China to Montenegro (NATO/Flickr)

In the Lowy poll, 68% answered they had a less favourable view of the Chinese system of government due to its handling of the coronavirus outbreak. Seven out of 10 agreed that China had not handled the outbreak well.

In the Canadian poll, only 14% expressed a favourable view of China, down from 29% in November 2019. There was very little faith that Chinese authorities have been open and transparent about the Covid-19 situation inside China.

Across the Atlantic in Germany, seven out of 10 agreed that “more transparency on the part of the Chinese government would have contributed towards mitigating or avoiding the current corona pandemic”. Only one out of four disagreed. More than a third of Germans polled reported having a worse view of China due to the pandemic compared with 25% whose views of China had improved.

Directing a drive-thru coronavirus testing site in New Jersey (New Jersey National Guard/Flickr)

The Lowy poll showed that, by a wide margin, Australians believe the US response has been less effective than that of China. Only 10% of Australians feel that American authorities have handled the coronavirus outbreak well, compared with 31% who believe that Chinese authorities have. Consistent with this judgement, 37% believe that China will be more powerful globally than before this pandemic, while only 6% think the US will be.

The commonality of these popular views should encourage more joint diplomatic responses to Beijing or Washington.

In the German poll, 36% agreed that having close relations with China was important for Germany, up from 24% in 2019. China is now level-pegging in Germany with the US on this question after being far behind last year. For three out of four Germans, Covid-19 has hurt their view of the US, while only 1 out of 20 see it the other way.

In the Canadian poll, only 38% of Canadians expressed a favourable view of the US, down from 49% in 2019.

Before the Covid-19 pandemic, global views of the Trump and Xi administrations were worsening. Recent polling suggests that the pandemic appears to be adding to this, in the Western world at least.

The strength of these views in Australia, Canada and Germany bolster their respective governments in responding to China or the US. The commonality of these popular views should encourage more joint diplomatic responses to Beijing or Washington, such as the 23 May joint statement by the Australian, Canadian and British governments in support of Hong Kong’s legal autonomy.     

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