Australians’ trust in China has hit a 15-year record low despite the two country’s growing demographic and economic ties, a new report by an Australian think tank has found.
But more Australians still trust Chinese President Xi Jinping than his US counterpart, President Donald Trump.
The 2019 Lowy Institute Poll, which measures Australians’ attitude to other countries, found that only 32% of those surveyed said they trusted China either a “great deal” or “somewhat” to act responsibly in the world.
It was a massive 20-point drop on the results of the 2018 survey, as a trade war ratchets up between China and the US, a close Australian ally.
Lowy Institute research fellow Natasha Kassam said the survey showed a “rapidly declining trust in China and Xi Jinping,” which she attributed to cooling relations between Beijing and Canberra.
“Over the past two years in Australia, there has been a fierce debate about potential Chinese interference in Australian politics and economic coercion,” she said.
Diplomatic relations between China and Australia began to sour after Canberra announced new legislation in December 2017 designed to crack down on foreign interference in the country’s politics.
Beijing saw the legislation as directed squarely at them and the two country’s relationship deteriorated.
Australians’ increasingly negative view of China could also be rooted in concerns about Chinese strategic ambitions in the region, Kassam said, including regional infrastructure funding and the South China Sea.
“Chinese involvement in the South China Sea is covered heavily in Australian media,” she said.
Economically, Kassam said the survey showed Australians were feeling “increasing vulnerability” about China’s economic rise, despite Beijing being Australia’s largest trading partner.
According to the report, 74% of Australians believe that their country is “too economically dependent on China”, while 68% said Australia allows “too much investment from China”.
Kassam said the uncertainty was partly due to the trade war and concern about how it would affect Australia. “Australians have no confidence that Australia’s economic interests will be protected in this conflict,” she said.
However despite cooling sentiment towards China, Australians still expressed more trust in the Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, than in US President Trump.
The Lowy Institute survey found that 30% of Australians reported that they have “some” or “a lot” of confidence in President Xi Jinping to do the right thing in world affairs.
In comparison, President Trump gained the trust of just 25% of Australians — a five point drop from 2018.
Trump’s trust levels only just topped the likes of Russian President Vladimir Putin and North Korea’s Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un. Two-thirds of those surveyed believing that President Trump weakened the US-Australian alliance.
“The US’s policy of strategic ambiguity leaves Australians feeling vulnerable”, Kassam told CNN.
But although Australians cast doubt on the US leadership, about 70% still believed the alliance with Washington was either very or fairly important for their nation’s security, the report says.
“The US-Australia alliance is a part of Australia’s DNA,” Kassam said.