With the China-Australia Free Trade Agreement coming into effect last December, it looks like ties between China and Australia are stronger than ever in light of the latest Lowy Institute Poll – which has Australians calling China its ‘best friend in Asia.’
Further, the poll shows that optimism about the Australian economy has lifted, with 70 per cent of Australians now ‘very optimistic’ or ‘optimistic’ about ‘Australia’s economic performance in the world over the next five years’, up seven points over the year-ago poll.
The 2016 Lowy Institute Poll is a nationally representative opinion survey of 1,202 Australian adults conducted between 26 February and 15 March this year. As always, the poll shares many interesting insights on Australian attitudes on a wide range of foreign policy issues.
And China may indeed be Australia’s new best friend to aid its economic transition post the country’s mining boom.
In her address to the Lowy Institute on Australia’s earlier this month Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said Australia must adjust and adapt its trade relationship with China as it made “the entirely predictable” transition to a more domestic demand-driven economy.
“It does mean we must adjust and adapt and be agile, as the Coalition has emphasised and as the Prime Minister has stated on more than one occasion, and create a broader based and more diverse economy,” Ms Bishop said.
“We do not seek strong macro-economic numbers for their own sake. As economies in East Asia change, as China is doing, we need to reposition Australia to ensure another long period of growth and prosperity lies ahead,” she said.
Ms Bishop warned that it is vital that the country stays attuned to trends and changes as they occur, and to the best of its ability, anticipate changes, so that it is better equipped to respond wisely.
The caveat, according the Lowy Poll, is that Australian attitudes towards China are dependent on which economic and societal aspects of China were considered.
While there is much to admire about China, some aspects of Chinese society and policy elicit negative responses among survey participants, particularly among older generations of Australians.
Chinese people, culture and history, and China’s economic growth are strongly positive influences on attitudes, with 85 per cent of Australians saying ‘Chinese people [they] have met’ are a positive influence on their view of China, while 79 per cent see ‘China’s culture and history’ as a positive influence and 75 per cent see its economic growth as a positive influence on their view.
On the opposite end, Australians react most strongly to ‘China’s human rights record’, with 86 per cent of the Australian public saying it has a negative influence on their views.
‘China’s military activities in our region’ also provoke strong responses, with 79 per cent saying these influence their views negatively. Other negative influences are ‘China’s system of government’ (73 per cent saying it negatively influences their view), its ‘environmental policies’ (67 per cent) and ‘Chinese investment in Australia’ (59 per cent).
As Australia’s alliance with Asia’s economic powerhouse is gaining strength, Australians remain divided when asked if its relationship with the US or its relationship with China is more important to the country. The question resulted in a 43 per cent tie on the importance of both relationships.
The poll also included an annual feelings thermometer, which measures Australians’ feelings towards a range of other countries on a scale of 0° in temperature (coldest feelings) to 100° (warmest feelings).
Among the 18 countries included in this year’s survey, the US is the only one for which Australian feelings have cooled significantly, down five degrees on last year’s result to 68. This cooling aligns with the survey findings of reduced support for the US alliance this year and coincides with the US presidential election season.
Prime Minister Turnbull recently described the US as the irreplaceable anchor to the global rules-based order, saying that no other country can take on this role.
Interestingly, feelings towards China saw no change and held steady at 58 degrees.
Without a doubt, China with its population of 1.4 billion people and rapidly rising middle class, coupled with Australian’s optimism about its economy, will present enormous opportunities for Australian businesses well into the future.