As with the rest of the world, Australia has stood witness to a raft of crises and conflict on the global stage in the last few years. The COVID-19 pandemic imposed extraordinary strain on the nation’s economy, and the Russia-Ukraine war set off a series of economic shocks from which Australia was not exempt. Australia has also seen significant changes sweep over its own political landscape: the country elected Labour Party leader Anthony Albanese as Prime Minister, effectively halting nearly a decade of Conservative political dominance.
With these events receding from the immediate present, however, Australians are beginning to reckon with a future shaped by the recent past. “After three years of global turmoil, Australians have caught their breath,” writes Dr Michael Fullilove, Lowy Institute Executive Director in his preface to the Lowy Institute Poll 2023, which tracks Australian sentiments across issues of global and domestic import. As a result, Australians are now taking stock of the shifting balance of power around the globe—and what that means for diplomatic relations and security for the country.
China moves to the fore
China has positioned itself as a major international force to contend with, owing to its prodigious economic growth and increasing political might. One of the more significant findings of the study shows that 6 in 10 or 61% of Australians now believe that China will play a more important and powerful role as a world leader in 10 years, while only 2 in 10 respondents believe that the United States will increase in importance and power. There appears to be a larger appreciation among Australians of China’s growing economic and political presence—and a recognition that the United States’ influence has its limits.
Exhibit 1: Future roles for the United States and China
Yet this view of China’s broadening authority appears to be underscored by majority distrust towards the Asian power. In 2020, more Australians (55%) regarded China as an economic power rather than a security threat. In 2023, however, 52% of Australians perceive China as a security threat, although it is worth noting that this is 11 points lower from 2022. The slight improvement in Australian perceptions of China’s role may have been aided by the Albanese government’s bid to smoothen relations with Beijing, which 56% of Australians say is either “very” or “somewhat” positive for Australian interests.
Exhibit 2: China: economic power or security threat
The US: a steadfast ally
In contrast to the dominant perception that China’s influence will extend further, the survey found that nearly half (45%) of respondents anticipate no change to the role of the United States as a world leader. Yet this apparent view of the United States’ stable grip on power may play into public favour towards Australia-US relations. An overwhelming 82% of Australians believe that the alliance between Australia and the United States is “very important” or “fairly important” to Australia’s security.
Exhibit 3: US alliance: importance to Australia’s security
While Australians hold a positive view of their country’s alliance with the United States, the Lowy Institute Poll suggests that respondent sentiment is far more complex—especially when asked about how the Australia-US alliance raises security risks for the country. Close to 75% of Australians state that the alliance raises the likelihood of Australia being drawn into a war with Asia. This appears to dovetail with the majority view (75%) that China, which shares an acrimonious relationship with the United States, looms as a military threat to Australia in the next 20 years.
Nevertheless, the survey suggests a silver lining for Australian sentiment towards the Australia-US alliance: although many Australians are indeed anxious about being roped into conflict with Asia, six in ten Australians believe that their country’s alliance with the United States buffers Australia from attack or pressure from China.
Cautious optimism in the home court
As for the ordinary Australian’s assessment of their own country’s prospects, the Lowy Institute Poll indicates that a large majority (62%) looks to the next five years with “reasonably solid” optimism on Australia’s economic performance. While this may appear to be a sunny outlook, the figure represents a 17-point decrease from optimism recorded in 2021, which suggests that Australians are taking a more cautious approach in estimating their country’s growth prospects.
Exhibit 4: Economic optimism
This cautious optimism appears to be consistent with many Australians’ view (57%) that “a severe downturn in the global economy” represents a critical threat to the country. As global economic headwinds continue to chart an unpredictable track—and as the scales of world power tip ever so slightly amid heightened international tensions—a wary hopefulness may yet persist among many Australians, allowing them to see clear-eyed towards an uncertain tomorrow.