Australians’ trust in China plummets to record low

Unravel staff

Less than a quarter of Australians trust China, and almost all want their economic dependence on Australia’s largest trading partner to reduce, according to a Lowy Institute poll

At a time when many nations are looking inward and people are questioning the merits of globalisation, Australia has been an outlier. Seventy percent of Australian respondents to a recent Lowy Institute poll said they believed globalisation is ‘mostly good for Australia’.

Australia has traditionally been a strong proponent of free trade and globalisation, and with China’s deepening integration into the global economy, the countries’ economies have become deeply intertwined. China is comfortably Australia’s largest trading partner.

However, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, and a host of other economic and diplomatic factors, relations between the two countries have frayed. China’s increasing interference in the South China Sea, and the recent passing of the national security law in Hong Kong have increased tensions.

This has complicated matters for Australia.

Sharp dive in relations

“Trust in our largest trading partner—China—has declined precipitously. Confidence in China’s leader Xi Jinping, has fallen even further. Almost all Australians would like to see diversification in order to reduce our economic dependence on China, and most would support imposing travel and financial sanctions on Chinese officials associated with human rights abuses,” Michael Fullilove, executive director of Lowy Institute, wrote.

According to the poll, Australians’ trust in China has hit its nadir – with only 23% Australians trusting China somewhat or a lot ‘to act responsibly in the world’, down sharply from 52% in 2018. Australia recently called for a global inquiry into the origins of COVID-19 and China’s initial handling of the outbreak, further straining an increasingly fragile relationship.

John West, author of the book Asian Century…on a Knife-edge and executive director of the Asian Century Institute, tells Unravel that political relations have taken a sharp dive following Australia’s call for an independent, international inquiry into the origin and handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. “And also as Australia responded to China’s new national security law for Hong Kong by suspending an extradition treaty law with Hong Kong, and by providing a visa pathway for certain Hong Kongers,” he adds.

Australians’ trust in China has hit its nadir – with only 23% Australians trusting China somewhat or a lot ‘to act responsibly in the world’, down sharply from 52% in 2018.

In comparison, more Australians trusted the UK (84%) than any other country. The share of Australians trusting the US fell marginally from 55% to 51% in the same period, while the share trusting India and Indonesia fell 14% and 16% to 45% and 36% respectively.

Figure 1: Trust in global powers

Source: Lowy Institute

A call to action

According to Mr West, “China has been the most important source of Australia’s prosperity in recent decades, as Australia’s most important export destination, and source of international students and tourists.”

Their deteriorating political relationship aside, China is Australia’s largest trading partner – Australia’s trade with China peaked at $160 billion in 2019. Australia relies very heavily on China as a destination for its exports, mainly primary goods and commodities of different kinds that have fuelled China’s stellar economic growth.

Additionally, Chinese students are a source of A$12 billion ($8.3 billion) in fee revenue per year in Australia. This heavy reliance on one country implies that any repercussions or retaliation by China is sure to have ripple effects on Australia’s economy. Indeed, China’s education ministry has advised its students to “be cautious about choosing to go to Australia or return to Australia to study”. This followed on the heels of its culture and tourism ministry’s warning against travel to China owing to the possibility of being faced with racial discrimination. 

In May 2020, China imposed an 80% tariff on Australian barley imports for the next five years – presumed to be retaliation to Australia’s call for a COVID-19 enquiry. In 2018, barley exports to China were estimated to be worth AU$1.5 billion. In added trade barriers, China increased import tariffs on Australian beef were to 12% from under 5%.

94% supported the idea that Australia start looking for other trade partners to reduce its economic dependence on China.

These events are certainly quashing any near-term possibilities of improved Sino-Australian relations.

Of those surveyed, 94% supported the idea that Australia start looking for other trade partners to reduce its economic dependence on China. And four in five also backed the idea of Australia ‘imposing travel and financial sanctions on Chinese officials associated with human rights abuses’.

On its part, the Australian government shows no signs of backing down from the actions to counter reports of Chinese influence and interference operations, Mr West says, as well as its concerns about China’s militarisation of the South China Sea.

Mr West says that while the Australian government’s actions will likely make Australia poorer, “many Australians believe that it is more important to protect the country’s sovereignty and national values”.

This is clearly in evidence if the poll results are anything to go by.

Figure 2: China: economic partner or security threat

Source: Lowy Institute

In fact, a collective sense of growing mistrust towards China is seen among Australians. Only 15% considered China to be a security threat in 2015, but this number has risen sharply to 41% in this year’s poll.

Relations with US important, but trust in Trump remains low

In contrast to views around China, a majority (55%) are of the view that Australia’s relationship with the US is more important than its relationship with China (40%). According to Lowy, the gap between the two powers was negligible three years ago.

However, given President Donald Trump’s perceived poor stance of global issues—such as the pull out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and his decision to quit the Paris climate agreement—only 30% of Australians trust him ‘to do the right thing regarding world affairs’. Rather damningly, the same number for Chinese President Xi Jinping fell from 43% in 2018 to 22% in 2020.

Among world leaders, Australians repose most confidence in New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern to do the right thing in the context of world affairs. Given New Zealand’s handling of COVID-19, this confidence may only grow stronger. She was followed by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Figure 3: Confidence in world leaders

Source: Lowy Institute

Future outlook

Going forward, Australians continue to see China dominate as a global power, although this opinion is now more divided than it was in 2009. According to the poll, the US and Europe will continue to be the other two big contenders for global leadership while China increasingly exerts its influence against the long-standing Western-led world order.

An overwhelming 88% also expressed their support for the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue between Australia, India, Japan and the US, also known as the Quad. They believe it is in Australia’s best interests to form a partnership with these democracies to promote peace and security in the region.

In a world where the geopolitical landscape is rapidly evolving, how Australia manages its relations with other key powers, while keeping its vital interests safeguarded, will be a complex task.

Relations with its main economic partner China underscore the challenge. According to Mr West, “Australia’s political relations with China are at their lowest ebb since diplomatic relations were established in 1972.” If recent developments (and sentiment) are anything to go by, these relations could be headed further south.

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