Australians’ trust in China and its president have collapsed amid an intensifying dispute with its largest trade partner and concerns over Beijing’s military intentions.
The annual Lowy Institute survey found that 16 per cent of respondents said they trusted China to act responsibly in the world, a 30 per cent fall since last year and a big turnround from 2018, when more than half of Australians said they trusted China.
Just one in 10 Australians said they had confidence in Chinese president Xi Jinping to do the right thing in world affairs.
In contrast, trust in the US rebounded, with seven in 10 Australians expressing confidence in President Joe Biden. Last year, just 30 per cent of Australians said they trusted then-president Donald Trump to do the right thing in world affairs.
“Sentiment towards China is now quite bleak,” said Michael Fullilove, executive director of the Lowy Institute. “For the first time, more Australians see China’s economic growth as a negative rather than a positive.”
The poll captured a big shift in public sentiment in Australia, which for more than a decade has capitalised on surging economic growth in China to drive two-way trade to A$251bn (US$188bn) in 2019-20.
Canberra’s call for an inquiry into the origins of Covid-19 last year and Beijing’s crackdown in Hong Kong have caused a sharp deterioration in diplomatic relations.
Over the past year, China has slapped tariffs on Australian wine and barley as part of what analysts have called a campaign of “economic coercion”. Canberra has referred these cases to the World Trade Organization and this month called on G7 leaders meeting in Cornwall to support its position.
Despite growing distrust of Beijing and a rebound in positive sentiment towards the US, more than half of Australians said they would prefer to remain neutral if China and the US went to war.
Canberra has a defence alliance with Washington, but only four in 10 Australians said their country should support the US in an armed conflict.
“Australians still have a sense that the US alliance keeps them safe. But they have become quite disillusioned about following the US into overseas conflicts following the experience of Iraq and Afghanistan,” said Natasha Kassam, lead pollster at Lowy.
More than half of Australians blamed China for the deterioration in relations with China, while 38 per cent said Canberra and Beijing were equally to blame. Almost three-quarters of Australians said it was possible for Canberra to maintain good relations with the US and China.