Australia’s China debate over the last couple of years has ranged from the apocalyptic consequences of war to cautious optimism after Beijing lifted many of its trade barriers against several Australian exports.
A greater stability has defined bilateral relations since Labor came to power in May 2022. Key government ministers have displayed discipline in public messaging about China, constantly repeating a mantra that “we will cooperate with China where we can, disagree where we must, but we will engage in our national interest”.
This shift has not been lost on the Australian public either, as the 2023 Lowy Institute Poll shows. The way Australians have absorbed messages around the stabilisation of Australia-China relations shows how much the tenor of Canberra’s China debate – and how politicians and experts conduct that discussion – matters.
The Lowy Institute Poll finds 56% of Australians are “very” or “somewhat” positive about the resumption of high-level ministerial contact between Beijing and Canberra. Despite this positive feeling, a similar percentage see China as a security threat (52%) as opposed to an economic partner (44%). Such findings are not contradictory. Moreso, they reflect Australian pragmatism. China brings economic and trade opportunities given the size of its market, but China’s ambition and military build-up also pose strategic challenges to Australia, as the recent Defence Strategic Review 2023 noted.
Unchanged from 2022 results, three-quarters of Australians this year say China will become a military threat to Australia in the next 20 years. Six in ten say China will play a more important and powerful role as a world leader ten years from now. This compares to two in ten that say the same about the United States.
This duality is also reflected in how Australians view the United States as it relates to our relationship with China. Australians continue to overwhelmingly value the US security alliance. Yet some three-quarters of respondents believe the alliance makes it more likely that Australia will be drawn into a war in Asia that would not be in the country’s interest.
The debate over China in recent years has certainly tarnished Australians’ views of China and its leadership. But at the same time, Beijing’s rhetoric and behaviour – from imposing trade restrictions on a range of Australian exports to crackdowns on protests in Hong Kong – have not helped its own international reputation. Yet even with the growing awareness of geopolitics and the tumult that characterises the US-China relationship in the region, threat perception levels of China have declined slightly over the past year. Those that say China’s foreign policy poses a “critical threat” to Australia’s vital interests declined by six points to 59%. Some of this sentiment is also reflected in the regional outlook, where the percentage of Australians “very concerned” about China opening a military base in a Pacific Island country has this year dropped 18 points to 42%.
All these attitudes are consistent with the stabilisation in Australia’s relationship with China. But Australians also appear to anticipate more ups and downs in the years ahead in a relationship that presents itself as both economic partner and security threat.