The lucky country is falling out with the country that has contributed so much to its people’s prosperity. Ross Stitt reports from Sydney.

ANALYSIS: Attitudes of Australians to China are hardening in line with the growing political and economic tensions between the two countries, according to a new survey.

This is important to New Zealand for a host of reasons, not least because China and Australia are this country’s two largest export markets.

The recent deterioration of Sino-Australian relations has been obvious from the statements and actions of the political leaders of those countries. But what are the views of the Chinese and the Australian people? It is difficult to know the former, but the 2021 Lowy Institute poll now throws considerable light on the latter.

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The Lowy Institute is an independent Australian think tank that focuses on international issues. It has polled the opinions of Australians for 15 years on a range of topics, including their attitudes to China. More than 2000 people across Australia were surveyed in March for its 2021 poll.

In Lowy’s 2018 poll, 52 percent of respondents said that they trusted China “to act responsibly in the world”. Three years later, that figure has plummeted to just 16 percent.

In 2018, 44 percent expressed little confidence that Chinese president Xi Jinping would “do the right thing regarding world affairs”. That lack of confidence has now rocketed to 78 percent.

Perhaps even more dramatically, 82 percent of Australians viewed China as “more of an economic partner to Australia” in 2018 versus just 12 percent who viewed it as “more of a security threat”. Three years later the position has reversed – now 63 percent see China as “more of a security threat” and only 34 percent see it as “more of an economic partner”.

These figures illustrate that Australians are very aware of their country’s worsening relations with China. More significantly, they show that Australians regard China as the guilty party.

Fortunately, the 2021 Lowy poll suggests that the hardening attitudes of Australians to China are based on the actions of the Chinese government and not on any kind of anti-Chinese prejudice. 93 percent say “China’s military activities” in the region have a negative influence on their view of China, while 76% say that “Chinese people” they have met have a positive influence on their view.

The results of the 2021 Lowy poll will not be lost on Australian politicians. Prime Minister Scott Morrison, aka ‘Scotty from marketing’, is a keen student of public opinion. Like all successful political leaders, he does not like to stray too far from what the public thinks.

The knowledge that his voters are taking an increasingly negative view of China may well strengthen his resolve to maintain a firm stance with China on trade, human rights, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and investigating the source of the Covid pandemic.

That obviously has consequences for New Zealand. This country has already been accused in some quarters of kowtowing to China to protect its own economic interests. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern did much to refute those accusations at her recent summit with Scott Morrison in Queenstown. However, the pressure on her will only intensify.

Just last week China launched its latest attack on Australia with a surprise series of cases in the World Trade Organization. Many commentators contend that China is also behind the very recent proposal from the UNESCO World Heritage Committee to define Australia’s Great Barrier Reef as “in danger”. China chairs the committee.

Anzac solidarity will be sorely tested in the months ahead.

No doubt Jacinda Ardern would welcome a Lowy poll on her side of the Tasman to give her a better feel for what Kiwis think about China.

Common cultural and historical ties suggest that views in Australia and New Zealand are likely to be broadly similar. The Global Times, the Chinese government’s English language forum, claims otherwise. At the time of the Queenstown summit, it argued that not only are the national interests of the two countries different, but “the composition and status of its people between the two countries are also different”.

An accurate observation or an attempt to sow division between two longstanding allies? Time will tell.

One thing is certain. As Ardern is increasingly wedged between China and Australia, she will feel a victim of what is often referred to as the Chinese curse: ‘May you live in interesting times’.

Ross Stitt is a freelance writer based in Sydney with a PhD in political science.

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