Australians highlight China's economic importance, but place greater weight on US ties

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 25 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 25 June, 2013, 7:39am

Australians are conflicted in their attitudes towards China, seeing the country as a great economic opportunity while at the same time feeling uneasy about growing Chinese investment, according to a Lowy Institute poll on public opinion and foreign policy issued yesterday.

The poll also found that more Australians place higher importance on the country's relationship with the United States, even though they recognise China is the most important economy for Australia.

Dr Michael Fullilove, executive director of the independent Australian think tank, was quoted as saying by the institute that the poll "illustrates why a central policy issue for future Australian governments will be managing the Australia-US-China strategic triangle".

A total of 76 per cent of 1,002 respondents identified China as the most important economy to Australia at the moment. This is 13 percentage points up since 2009.

However, strong economic ties do not necessarily mean a harmonious relationship, with sentiment towards China having cooled slightly. The poll showed that 57 per cent of Australians thought their country was allowing too much investment from China, up from 56 per cent last year.

As well as fear of Chinese investment, more than half of Australians see China as a military threat, unchanged from last year's result and down from a 2009 peak.

Rory Metcalf, director of the institute's international security programme, said China had an "opportunity … through its public diplomacy, to put a lid on those threat perceptions".

A reflection of that fear was increased support for the US alliance, which the poll's author, Alex Oliver, said remained "the bedrock of Australian security".

The poll revealed that 82 per cent supported the Australian-US relationship, the highest percentage since polling began in 2005. More than half agreed with hosting US troops on Australian soil. "Support for the US basing forces [in Australia] is firming and perhaps we can balance that against the military threat from China," Oliver said.

Shen Shishun, director of the department of Asia-Pacific security and co-operation at the China Institute of International Studies, said the fear was unfounded.

"I don't see any tendency in China's military organisation and development aimed towards Australia," Shen said, adding that China saw Australia as an "extended neighbour" and that there was "no intention at all of military action".

Professor Kerry Brown, executive director of the China Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, said that perceiving China as an economic opportunity and a military threat was an ambiguity derived from the speed of China's rise and fear of a different economic system.

"It creates a certain amount of confusion and a lack of comprehension about how to interpret the situation, which is not helped by the fact that China is not very good at explaining what it is up to," Brown said.

Nevertheless, the vast majority of those polled - 87 per cent - said it was possible for Australia to have good relations with both China and the US, and 62 percent disagreed with the statement that "Australia should support US military action in Asia, for example in a conflict between China and Japan."