Economic pessimism, China fears escalate

Australians feel pessimistic about the economy, distrust China and remain worried by US President Donald Trump.

The Lowy Institute’s 2020 Understanding Australian Attitudes to the World poll has revealed how coronavirus and global geopolitical turmoil have affected the Australian psyche.

“Most Australians have very little confidence in China’s President Xi Jinping. And while we might expect Australians to look to the United States while the relationship with China is souring, that hasn’t been the case,” Lowy Institute research fellow Natasha Kassam told SBS News.

“Even though support for the alliance remains high, Australians remain sceptical of President Trump and his America First policies,” she said.

The poll revealed “unprecedented shifts” in Australian public opinion.

Only 23 per cent of Australians surveyed trusted China “a great deal” or “somewhat” to act responsibly in the world – down from 52 per cent in 2018.

Only 22 per cent of Australians said they had confidence in Xi Jinping to do the right thing in world affairs – down from 43 per cent in 2018.

“And feelings towards China on a scale of zero degrees to 100 degrees have fallen sharply in 2020, to 39 degrees. This represents a drop of 10 degrees in a single year, and the lowest score that China has received in the history of the poll,” the report says.

“In 2018, Australians were asked to weigh up their perception of China as an economic partner versus a military threat, and the balance of opinion tipped far more heavily towards China being an economic partner (82 per cent) rather than a military threat (12 per cent).”

“More Australians (55 per cent) see China as ‘more of an economic partner’ than the 41 per cent that see China as ‘more of a security threat’ to Australia.”

But only 55 per cent of respondents see China as an economic partner in 2020, down from 82 per cent in 2018.

And nine in 10 polled Australians want the nation to lessen its economic dependence on China.

Michell Grattan, Professorial Fellow at the University of Canberra, points out that extraordinary number comes despite the Lowy poll being taken in March, before Australia/China relations soured and China advised students not to travel to Australia.

“I think what we are seeing is a shift in the public eye of China as the source of economic prosperity to Australia to being a risk because of what is seen as economic dependency,” said Ms Kassam.

Dr Delia Lin, a senior lecturer in Chinese studies at Melbourne University, told SBS the low level of trust in China creates a challenge. “… how will Australia do business with China in the future? How will they engage in different sectors when the trust is so low? I think that will be interesting to watch Australia grapple with whether to view China as a threat or to trust them,” she said.

The poll report states that the COVID-19 pandemic has “taken a heavy toll on Australians’ sense of security”.

Asked about world events and how safe they feel, a record low of 50 per cent said they felt safe, down from 78 per cent in 2018.

Economic pessimism also broke records: only 52 per cent remain optimistic, the lowest level recorded in the 16-year history of the poll and down 13 points from 2019.

While 78 per cent of Australians said its alliance with the US is very or fairly important to Australia’s security, 51 per cent said they trust the country to act responsibly in the world. That number was 81 per cent in 2009.

Just 30 per cent of Australians said they had confidence in President Trump to do the right thing in world affairs.

Dr Graeme Smith from the Australian National University is not surprised by the lack of confidence in Mr Trump.

“Australia doesn’t warm to Republican candidates, but they really haven’t warmed to Donald Trump. There are good reasons just from a national point of view – his America First policies aren’t good for Australia,” he said.

“He puts his interests above his allies and cuddles up to autocrats, such as photo ops with Kim Jong Un. This sort of embrace of autocracy doesn’t go down too well in Australia,” he added.

Seventy-three per cent of those polled said they would prefer Democrat nominee Joe Biden to be president over Mr Trump.

Are you concerned by Australia’s relationships with the world’s superpowers?

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Written by Will Brodie

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