Having a deep interest in power politics is still not the norm in Australia. Yet, an increasing number of its population appears genuinely concerned about what a more aggressive and autocratic China means for Australia and for themselves. Intensifying media coverage of the friction in bilateral relations seems to reflect a growing public interest in understanding where the relationship is heading and why.

The 2021 Lowy Institute Poll found that Australian public perceptions of China are increasingly negative, with a majority of Australians (63 per cent) now seeing China as “more of a security threat to Australia”, a 22-point increase from 2020. But what, if anything, does this trend towards negativity in our public perceptions of China mean for Australia’s China policy?

The short answer is it’s too early to tell, so overstatements should be avoided.

As is the case in most countries, the Australian public is not very knowledgeable about foreign policy issues or the patterns shaping international events.

That there is more Australian public interest in the bilateral relationship than before does not mean that interest will continue to increase over time or that public opinion will soon start to impose real restraints on Australian government decision-making vis-à-vis China.

That Australians’ overall sense of security rebounded in 2021 with fewer Australians seeing Covid-19 as a critical threat (down 17 points from 2020) suggests there are still limits to how much we truly care about China’s international behaviour.

Australian political elites are in any case not used to making trade-offs between foreign and domestic imperatives and as such are probably not ready to lead public opinion on complex national security issues even if they had to. They have not had to do much public heavy lifting on Australia’s China challenge in recent years because most Australians have either been distracted by Covid-19 or uninterested in Australia’s external strategic environment.

This is changing, but slowly. And that is probably a good thing.

As is the case in most countries, the Australian public is not very knowledgeable about foreign policy issues or the patterns shaping international events. Those that are, often have narrow interests that make them attracted to arguments they already agree with. Those who engage without pre-conceived ideas, often don’t know where to look, get confused and switch off.

So while Australian audiences across generations might be consuming all kinds of media on China-related issues, fresh insights on the causes and consequences of friction in the bilateral relationship are hard to find because of the low levels of base knowledge and the tribal mentality of many who write about it regularly.  

As Allan Gyngell wrote in 2017, foreign policy doesn’t lend itself to clear storytelling, which is why most voters have little interest in it. Telling a clear story about China is much harder than it was five years ago due to the now heightened public interest and corresponding competing public narratives.

Despite the increased interest, international politics is still far from an enduring feature of Australian political life. As such, Australian political elites would be wise to avoid looking for signs that more Australians believe foreign policy should be geared towards protecting Australian values, which are perceived to be under threat from a more aggressive and risk-accepting China.

Australia’s long-term goal as a nation must be to care about the right things for the right reasons.

Many Australians do think this way, including this author. And Australia may well be heading in a direction where foreign policy issues do capture the attention of the public in ways that fundamentally change the modalities of foreign policymaking in Australia, but we are not there yet.

The upcoming federal election will be a good test of how far down this path Australia has gone. Public perceptions of the intent behind any Coalition attempts to wedge the ALP on China issues during the campaign will be more interesting to watch than the politics itself.

Nurturing broad public understanding of the implications for Australia in all this is a delicate process that needs to play out on a plane of national consciousness above and below electoral politics. It cannot be manufactured and should not be rushed or leveraged for political gain, lest Australians paint themelves into the corner of convincing themselves that they collectively care more about something than they really do.

Australia’s long-term goal as a nation must be to care about the right things for the right reasons, and to act accordingly before Australia’s strategic environment deteriorates to a point that it is obvious to all that more should have been done to defend it.

No easy task, but that is what lies ahead.