Commentary |
23 June 2021

Fear of military conflict on the rise in Australia

In an opinion piece originally published in The Australian newspaper, Lowy Institute director of public opinion and foreign policy Natasha Kassam and research director Alex Oliver describe how the pandemic, China’s behaviour, and a change in US leadership have catalysed some rapid shifts in Australians' views of the world.

The view from Australia is very different from 12 months ago. We watched with dismay as the pandemic struck much of the world, while life in most of Australia adjusted to a new normal.

Today, a more mixed picture emerges. Many of our global partners and allies have eased restrictions and opened their doors while neighbouring countries have fallen into second and third waves of Covid crises. Australia remains closed to the world, largely unvaccinated, and entrenched in a toxic relationship with our largest trading partner, China.

Against this backdrop the 2021 Lowy Institute Poll, released on Wednesday, finds Australians acutely disenchanted with China, while their sense of security and optimism have largely rebounded.

Seven in 10 Australians (70 per cent) report feeling safe, an increase of 20 points from last year. And as the Australian economy snaps back faster and more strongly than expected, 79 per cent say they are optimistic about Australia’s economic performance in the world – a 27-point lift since last year and the largest rebound in economic optimism in the 17 years of the poll, to a point higher even than pre-pandemic levels.

Australians’ anxiety about Covid also has abated significantly since last year, falling 17 points; six in 10 (59 per cent) say Covid poses a critical threat to Australia’s vital interests in the next 10 years.

Climate change is back at the top of the agenda. Anxiety about the climate receded last year, even after catastrophic summer bushfires. The pandemic clearly eclipsed Australians’ concerns. But this year six in 10 say climate change poses a critical threat to Australia’s vital interests, and the same number say Australia is doing too little to address it.

Three-quarters of the population believe the benefits of stronger action on climate change will outweigh the costs, and even more support an emissions target of net zero by 2050. Most say Australia’s policy on climate change has a negative influence on our reputation overseas. Ahead of COP26 in Glasgow, this suggests Australia may need to do more.

Most Australians (70 per cent) say Australia should follow the US and Britain to increase its climate commitments. But Australians also expect more from larger countries: 81 per cent say China is doing too little to combat climate change and 71 per cent say the same about the US.

Perhaps the most striking findings concern China. Only 16 per cent trust China to act responsibly in the world; three years ago this number was more than 50 per cent. Even fewer – one in 10 – have confidence in China’s leader, Xi Jinping. For the first time in the poll’s history, more Australians see China as a security threat than an economic partner. Most blame China for the downturn in the bilateral relationship and see Australia-China relations as a critical threat to Australia’s vital interests.

Anxiety over potential military conflict involving China is on the rise. Most Australians (52 per cent) say a military conflict between the US and China over Taiwan poses a critical threat to Australia’s vital interests, an increase of 17 points from last year. Yet most still say we can have good relations with both China and the US. And should a conflict eventuate, 57 per cent of Australians say we should remain neutral, while 41 per cent say Australia should support the US.

Despite this divided response to potential conflict, most Australians regard the US alliance as important to Australia’s security. And President Joe Biden inspires far more confidence in Australians than his predecessor. Three-quarters of Australians say the US would come to Australia’s defence if we were under threat, and only a third (36 per cent) see the US as in decline relative to China, 10 points lower than two years ago.

The pandemic, China’s behaviour, and a change in US leadership have catalysed some rapid shifts in views of the world from down under. The pandemic has sharpened suspicions about China, while President Biden has increased our confidence in America. Our handling of the crisis has renewed our sense of security and future prosperity. But old concerns about climate have resurfaced. While Australians may think the toughest moments of the pandemic are behind us, they still see some formidable challenges ahead.