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People jog in view of the city skyline in Sydney, Australia, September 2, 2020. Photo: EPA-EFE

Australians ‘not willing to give up’ on China despite growing mistrust, survey finds

  • Increased foreign influence and security threat from China are concerns for most Australians, finds annual survey by the Australia-China Relations Institute and the Centre for Business Intelligence & Data Analytics
  • While six in 10 respondents believe Australia should keep trying to have a strong relationship with China, the same proportion want Canberra to take a tougher stance, leading researchers to say the findings show a ‘complicated picture’
Most Australians think China and Australia can work together on international issues such as climate change despite their mistrust of the Chinese government and its influence in their country, a survey by the University of Technology Sydney has found.

A new poll by the university’s Australia-China Relations Institute (ACRI) and its Centre for Business Intelligence & Data Analytics (BIDA) found that, amid a deteriorating diplomatic relationship between the two countries, Australians held conflicting views about China.

Even though most of the 2,000 adult Australians surveyed in March and April did not trust the Chinese government’s dealings with Australia and were concerned by increased Chinese investment and property purchases in their country, they also saw the Chinese government as having greater influence in the Asia Pacific than Australia’s biggest ally, the United States.
Despite a strong shift in sentiments, with most of those surveyed saying their views of China had worsened since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, six in 10 surveyed believed that Canberra should continue to build ties with Beijing, while about half of those surveyed felt the Australian government needed to support closer economic ties with China.

However, about 63 per cent believed the government should take a harder line in policies dealing with China.


Trade ‘only one part of the battle‘ in China-Australia dispute, says legal expert Bryan Mercurio

Trade ‘only one part of the battle‘ in China-Australia dispute, says legal expert Bryan Mercurio

Those who supported a relationship with China said Australia stood to gain from it, while some of those who expressed concerns about the relationship also expressed support for better ties. 

But with trade and political ties between the two countries having deteriorated since Australia called for an independent inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus last April, Australians were increasingly concerned about the relationship and were either uncertain or undecided whether it would improve in the next three years, the survey found.

Elena Collinson of ACRI and Paul Burke of BIDA, the authors of the inaugural survey – which takes the pulse of the Australian public’s view of the Canberra-Beijing relationship in the hope of working out trends – said the findings showed “a complicated picture”.

“Australians are clearly still trying to make sense of this period of tumult and understand a constantly evolving strategic situation,” they said. “While Australians are concerned about both the downward spiral in relations and China’s new assertiveness, they are not yet willing to give up on the relationship entirely, recognising some of its benefits.

“Only future polls will reveal whether these results precede a tipping point in one clear direction or whether this ambiguity can persist despite the current unprecedented strain.”

Australia’s China debate gets more rancorous with harassment, threats and lawsuits

Respondents were recruited at random nationwide and their backgrounds varied in terms of education, age, income and employment. They did not necessarily have a commercial or personal connection with China.

Australians above 47 years of age and those who voted for the serving conservative government of Scott Morrison were found to be more suspicious of China than younger Australians, and were more worried about the relationship – particularly Beijing’s recent bans on some Australian exports such as wine and coal. 

Most respondents agreed with the statement: “Without close engagement with China, Australia would not be as prosperous as it currently is.”

However, most Australians also thought that their country was overly dependent on China for trade and business, with 81 per cent saying universities were too financially reliant on international students from China.

Those with higher incomes and tertiary level educations – and retirees – were more supportive of a relationship with China than those who were unemployed.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison. Photo: Reuters

Almost three-quarters of people surveyed (72 per cent) thought the Australian government was right to demand an independent investigation into the origins of the coronavirus – despite the call leading to a meltdown in Canberra’s relationship with Beijing – but they were not asked if the Morrison government had been sufficiently diplomatic in its approach. A minority of respondents felt the government was managing its relationship with China well, while over 40 per cent thought the opposite.

After demanding the investigation, Australia had sought the support of European countries for its stance. However, at the height of the pandemic, countries such as France and Britain had demurred, saying fighting the virus was more important at that time than apportioning blame.

But since then, on the eve of the  G7 Leaders’ Summit, the US, Britain and the European Union renewed calls for an independent investigation into the origins of the coronavirus, “including in China”, after doubts were cast on a World Health Organization investigation in March.

As China-Australia ties fray, who is shaping Canberra’s increasingly hawkish policy on Beijing?

The vast majority of respondents thought both Australia and China had a responsibility to maintain a positive relationship, but when asked to choose one country, slightly more felt China bore the bigger responsibility.

There was no majority consensus over Australia’s position on Taiwan or whether dealings with China should be reduced due to its human rights record. About half said Australia should remain neutral over Taiwan, and less than half thought Australia should offer military support to the US in the event of a war between the US and China over Taiwan. 

The Australian government has recently moved to boost defence spending and several politicians have claimed war in the region is increasingly likely.

Six in 10 respondents said they were aware of the negative impacts of the diplomatic spat on fellow citizens and residents of Chinese descent. Despite most feeling that universities needed to reduce financial reliance on Chinese students, most also recognised the students’ importance as a bridge between the countries.