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Australians’ feelings towards China are thawing but suspicion remains high: Lowy 2023 poll

The diplomatic thaw between China and Australian since the election of the Albanese government is being followed by a limited thaw in Australians’ negativity towards China, according to the Lowy Institute’s 2023 Poll.

But Australians remain deeply concerned about China as a long term potential military threat.

In the poll, more than half (56%) saw the resumption of ministerial contact as positive for Australia, while there has been a decline in those seeing China as a security threat.

Asked whether China is more of an economic partner or more of a security threat to Australia, those nominating a security threat is down 11 points from 2022 (to 52%). Those nominating an economic partner has risen 11 points to 44%.

Lowy Institute, Author provided

This still contrasts with Australians’ feelings in 2020, when more people saw China as more of an economic partner (55%) than a security threat (41%).

Also, three quarters (75%) of Australians continue to believe it is likely China will become a military threat in the next 20 years, unchanged since last year.

Nearly nine in ten people (87%) are concerned about China potentially opening a military base in a Pacific island country.

More than half (56%) say that in the event of a military conflict between China and the United States, Australia should remain neutral. This is five points above 2022.

Asked about reaction to a Chinese invasion of Taiwan, 64% would support Australia sending arms and military supplies to the Taiwanese government. Six in ten (61%) would support using the Australian navy to help prevent China imposing a blockade around Taiwan. But only 42% would support “sending Australian military personnel to Taiwan to help defend it from China”.

Lowy’s executive director Michael Fullilove writes in his preface to the poll: “The sharp decline in Australian perceptions of China has levelled out.

"However, the levels of trust, confidence and warmth towards China and President Xi Jinping remain strikingly low. Five years ago, more than half of Australians trusted China to act responsibly in the world. Today, that figure is only 15%.”

Read more: Dialogue is vital 'guardrail' in dealing with China, Albanese tells international security forum

The poll comprises two nationally representative surveys taken March 14-26 and April 11-26 2023, with sample sizes of 2,077 and 4,469 Australian adults, respectively. This is the 19th edition of the Lowy Poll.

The poll found that while trust in the United States has declined by four points from last year, it is 10 points higher than in 2020, the last year of the Trump presidency.

Confidence in President Joe Biden is 59%, steady since last year but 10 points under 2021, his first year in office.

More than eight in ten (82%) of people say the Australian-US alliance is important to Australia’s security. This is five points lower from last year’s 87%, which was a record high.

About half (49%) believe AUKUS will make Australian safer, while 46% believe it will make the region safer.

Two-thirds (67%) support the decision to acquire nuclear-powered submarines.

Read more: China and the US are talking again – so, where does the relationship go from here?

Polling in April, a month after the San Diego announcement of the detail of the submarine program, showed mixed feelings about the impact of the submarines on the likelihood of conflict in the region: 28% believed it will deter military conflict, while 20% thought it will increase the risk of conflict.

Asked whether the total cost of the submarine program (between $268 billion and $368 billion) is worth paying for the additional capability provided, 47% did not think the cost worth it.

When people were asked about threats to Australia’s vital interests in the next decade, cyberattacks from other countries ranked top (68%), ahead of a military conflict between the US and China over Taiwan (64%).

Lowy Poll
Lowy Institute, Author provided (no reuse)

Fullilove sums up the feelings of the nation in 2023. “The 2023 Lowy Institute Poll reveals a sober optimism on the part of Australians looking out to the world. More Australians feel safe than last year. Their belief in democracy remains strong. They remain relatively hopeful about Australia’s economic outlook.

"But there has been no return to factory settings. The shocks of recent years broke many underlying assumptions about the world,” Fullilove writes.

The poll asked people how they rated the foreign performances of the six prime ministers of the past 15 years. Anthony Albanese ranked the highest with 83% saying he had done a very good or reasonable job handling foreign policy. He was followed by Kevin Rudd (78%), Julia Gillard (77%), Malcolm Turnbull (69%), Tony Abbott (50%) and Scott Morrison (46%).

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