Australians' trust in China hits new low as relations worsen

Only 16 per cent of respondents in an annual Lowy Institute Poll said they trust China to act responsibly in the world. PHOTO: AFP

CANBERRA (BLOOMBERG) - Australians' trust in China has dropped to a record low as more people perceive the nation as a security threat than an economic partner, according to a survey released Tuesday (June 22).

Trust in the United States, meanwhile, has risen amid higher levels of confidence in President Joe Biden than his predecessor.

Only 16 per cent of respondents said they trust China to act responsibly in the world, down from 52 per cent in 2018, the annual Lowy Institute Poll showed. Just 10 per cent said they have confidence in China's President Xi Jinping to "do the right thing regarding world affairs", from 22 per cent last year.

In contrast, 69 per cent have confidence in Mr Biden, 39 percentage points higher than the support given to then President Donald Trump last year. Some 61 per cent said they trust the US, up 10 points from last year.

"In 2015, the majority of Australians didn't know who Xi Jinping was," Ms Natasha Kassam, director of the institute's Public Opinion and Foreign Policy Program, said in a Bloomberg Television interview on Wednesday.

"And now we can see that they know who he is, and they have very little confidence in him." The slide in public perceptions of China mirrors the marked decline in diplomatic ties between the two nations.

Relations have frayed since 2018, when Australia barred Huawei Technologies from building its 5G network, and went into freefall last year as Prime Minister Scott Morrison led calls for an independent probe into the origins of the coronavirus that first emerged in the Chinese city of Wuhan.

Beijing has responded with a volley of punitive trade actions that have hit commodities from coal to barley, lobsters and wine.

"The past few years have had an endless list of bilateral irritants between Australia and China," Ms Kassam said in an earlier interview.

Issues such as the treatment of Uighur Muslims and the crackdown on pro-democracy campaigners in Hong Kong had influenced public opinion, but the most dramatic change "related to China weaponising the economic relationship between the two countries", she said.

The survey showed 63 per cent of Australians view China as more of a security threat, up 22 points from last year. Only 34 per cent said China is "more of an economic partner to Australia", a drop of 21 points.

"That is remarkable when you consider that China still is Australia's largest trading partner," Ms Kassam said.

Overall support for the alliance with the US remained steady, with 78 per cent saying it was important to Australia's security and 75 per cent saying America would come to the nation's defence if it was under threat - both unchanged from last year.

The Lowy survey also showed: For the first time, a majority of respondents (52 per cent) saw any military conflict between the US and China over Taiwan as a critical threat to Australia's vital interests.

Fifty-seven per cent said "Australia should remain neutral" in any military conflict between China and the US, and 59 per cent viewed Covid-19 as a critical threat, down 17 points from last year.

Of the respondents, 79 per cent said they are optimistic about Australia's economic performance in the world, up 27 points since last year.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern topped the list of global leaders, with 91 per cent of respondents expressing confidence in her. Mr Biden followed on 69 per cent, with Mr Morrison and Germany's Angela Merkel on 67 per cent, Cyberattacks from other countries (62 per cent) and climate change (61 per cent) were seen as the most critical threats to Australia.

The survey of 2,222 Australian adults was conducted March 15-29 and has a margin of error of 2.1 per cent.

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