Australians' trust in China sinking as ties worsen, surveys show

New opinion surveys suggest that Australians have not been deterred by Chinese retaliation.
New opinion surveys suggest that Australians have not been deterred by Chinese retaliation.PHOTO: AFP

SYDNEY - Australia has been the subject of recent trade sanctions by China worth more than A$20 billion (S$20.4 billion), yet a series of opinion surveys show that Beijing's punishments have left Australians defiant and strongly committed to pushing back.

In recent years, ties between Australia and China have rapidly deteriorated, fuelled by Beijing's anger at several measures by Canberra, including its foreign interference legislation, its ban on Huawei's involvement in its 5G network, its limits on foreign investment, and calls for an inquiry into the origins of Covid-19.

China has effectively frozen ministerial contacts and has imposed sanctions and curbs on a range of Australian exports, including wine, beef, barley and coal. China is Australia's largest trading partner and accounts for more than 35 per cent of its exports.

Yet three new opinion surveys all suggest that Australians have not been deterred by Chinese retaliation, even though many are concerned about the federal government's handling of the relationship.

A survey conducted by Resolve Strategic for The Sydney Morning Herald found that 62 per cent of respondents said Australia should "stick to its values and speak up", compared with 23 per cent who said Australia should "think twice before antagonising China", with 15 per cent undecided. Just 15 per cent of people believe Australia should avoid antagonising China if tariffs continue, compared with 49 per cent who disagreed, with the remainder undecided.

The Herald's political commentator, Mr Peter Hartcher, said the results showed that China's leaders "seem to have misjudged Australia's people". He noted that China's economic measures against Australia had been "outmatched" by China's ongoing - and surging - demand for Australian iron ore.

"China's sanctions might have produced different results in other circumstances," he wrote in the newspaper.

"But, so far at least, Xi's effort to break Australia's will has only solidified it."

Still, most Australians want trade to continue to flourish.

A poll conducted by the Australia-China Relations Institute (Acri) and the Centre for Business Intelligence and Data Analytics (Bida) at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) found that 61 per cent of Australians support continuing to try to build strong connections and a strong relationship with China, with 17 per cent opposed and 22 per cent uncommitted. It also found that 43 per cent of Australians believe the federal government is not managing the China relationship well, compared with 32 per cent who disagree and 25 per cent uncommitted.

The authors of a report on the findings, Ms Elena Collinson from Acri and Dr Paul Burke from Bida, said Australians were still "trying to make sense of this period of tumult".

"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," they wrote.

A separate survey released by the Lowy Institute this week found that Australians' trust in China has reached record lows. For the first time, more Australians see China as a security threat than an economic partner. The survey found that 56 per cent of Australians blame China for the tensions in the relationship, 4 per cent blame Australia, 38 per cent blame both, and the remainder were uncommitted.

It found that 63 per cent of people view China as more of a security threat than an economic partner, compared with 34 per cent who saw China as an economic partner, with the remainder undecided. This is a sharp turnaround from 2018, when 82 per cent viewed China as more of an economic partner and only12 per cent saw it as a security threat.

The director of the institute's Public Opinion and Foreign Policy programme, Ms Natasha Kassam, said Australians were clearly unimpressed with China's behaviour, noting that the relationship seems likely to further decline.

"On almost every question that has been asked about China in the 17 years of the poll, views have soured," she said on the institute's website.

"Few incentives are obvious that will lead to a change of course."

Results of recent polls

- 84 per cent of Australians do not trust China to act responsibly in the world (Lowy)

- 51 per cent support Australia attending the China Winter Olympics in 2022, 45 per cent support a boycott (Lowy)

- 59 per cent support criticising China over Hong Kong and Taiwan, 10 per cent are opposed (Resolve)

- 76 per cent mistrust the Chinese government (UTS)