Only a quarter of Australians trust China to act responsibly in the world – with such faith crashing nearly 30 percentage points in the past two years – according to the Lowy Institute’s latest annual poll of sentiment towards global issues.
And while the poll shows a large majority of Australians value the alliance with the United States, and a slim majority trust the US to act responsibly on the world stage, that is not matched by faith in Donald Trump.
The results came as Malcolm Turnbull, the former prime minister, accused the US president of being erratic, incendiary and inconsistent – and suggested that Beijing was engaged in “a series of overreactions” that were counterproductive.
The Lowy Institute-commissioned poll provides a snapshot of public opinion on a range of issues in international affairs and indicates 59% of Australians see climate change as a critical threat, down five points since last year, while anxiety about a severe downturn in the global economy is on the rise.
Against the background of growing diplomatic and trade tensions between Australia and China, the poll suggests that when a clash occurs between democratic values and economic interests in foreign policy, six in 10 Australians say the government should consider democratic values more important.
Dr Michael Fullilove, the Lowy Institute’s executive director, said the poll showed unprecedented shifts in public opinion.
“Our ties to China are being tested by an increasingly assertive party-state,” he said. “Our great ally, the United States, was already self-isolating under the presidency of Donald Trump. Now, in the middle of the pandemic, it looks seriously unwell.”
The poll shows 23% of adult Australians trust China either “a great deal” or “somewhat” to act responsibly in the world – compared with 52% in 2018 – while just 22% express confidence in Xi Jinping, the Chinese president, to do the right thing in world affairs.
The same questions, when asked about Australia’s top security ally, are revealing, with 51% trusting the US a great deal or somewhat to act responsibly in the world – a score that is about 30 points lower than the Barack Obama-induced high of 2009.
With a bitterly contested presidential election looming in November, just 30% of the sample trust Trump to act responsibly on the world stage, although that result is five points higher than last year.
The poll identified very little support among Australians for Trump’s criticism of defence spending of allies and his withdrawal from the Paris climate accord and the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
It found very strong support for the Australian government to look for other markets to reduce economic dependence on China, with 19 in 20 respondents backing that notion. Four in five respondents backed the idea of sanctioning Chinese officials associated with human rights abuse.
Tensions with Beijing escalated last week after Marise Payne, the Australian foreign minister, accused countries including China and Russia of carrying out targeted disinformation campaigns during the pandemic. It prompted Beijing to hit back at claims it described as “completely rubbish”.
Scott Morrison, the prime minister, disclosed on Friday that a wide range of political and private-sector organisations in Australia had been targeted by a “sophisticated state-based cyber-actor”. While he did not name the country suspected of the cyber intrusions, anonymous government sources were quoted in Australian media as saying China was believed to be responsible – claims that were also denied by Beijing.
Morrison’s predecessor was forthright in an interview with the ABC on Tuesday evening. Turnbull said China had “the largest cyber-espionage operations in the world”.
“We know that all countries engage in foreign intelligence gathering and espionage but the level, the scale of the cyber activities from China are really of an industrial level … a scale that we haven’t ever seen before,” Turnbull told the ABC’s Patricia Karvelas.
When asked about ongoing tensions in the relationship between Australia and China, Turnbull accused Beijing of overreacting and suggested the Chinese Communist party would be better off trying “to be as unlike President Trump as they can be”.
“Where he is inconsistent, where he is erratic, where he is sending off incendiary tweets, they should be quite the reverse,” Turnbull said.
“They should be consistent, not overreact, be as calm and as measured as they can be because that, frankly, if their object is to win support and trust of other countries, and particularly from countries that are normally closer to the US, then the steadier and calmer they are, the better.
“But I think what the government in Beijing is doing is playing to its domestic audience at the moment.”
China has pursued a series of trade measures – including steep tariffs on barley imports and restrictions of red meat supplied by four abattoirs – after Australia played a prominent and early role in calling for an independent international investigation into the origins and handling of Covid-19.
The Lowy Institute’s poll of 2,448 Australian adults was conducted by the Social Research Centre between 16 and 29 March, with a margin of error of about 2%.
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