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Australians’ view of China ‘improves’, India ‘also a concern’

Australians’ view of China ‘improves’, India ‘also a concern’
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China a ‘best friend in Asia’ to more Australians but trust still ‘low’, as India also a concern: survey

More Australians see China as a “best friend in Asia” this year, but trust remains “low” despite improving bilateral relations, according to a new poll by the Lowy Institute think tank, with results also indicating concerns with India’s human rights record.

Japan topped the “best friend in Asia” rankings within the poll for the third year in a row, with 42 per cent surveyed choosing Japan over Singapore and Indonesia, which were in second and third position respectively.

While Japan, Singapore and Indonesia’s placings were unchanged from last year, the number of Australians viewing China favourably as an Asian best friend rose 4 percentage points to 11 per cent of those surveyed. Just over 2,000 Australians were surveyed for the poll in March.

The result improved on the record low of 6 per cent two years ago, but was markedly worse than in 2016, when 30 per cent felt China was a better “best friend” in Asia than Japan.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and his Australian counterpart Penny Wong shake hands at a meeting in Parliament House in Canberra in March. Photo: AAP/dpa

“Australians’ views on security, defence and alliances remain complex,” said Ryan Neelam, Director of the Lowy Institute’s Public Opinion and Foreign Policy Program.

“Many Australians remain wary towards China, despite re-engagement at the political level. Overall, trust in China remains low, and threat perceptions remain high. The public is roughly divided on whether Australia should prioritise maintaining stability or deterring China.”

In contrast, fewer Australians see India as a best friend in Asia. The proportion of Australians who voted for India fell to 10 per cent from 16 per cent last year, coming below China.

While India engaged with Australia in security dialogues such as the Quad and both countries had promised to increase trade, local media and international human rights groups had documented religious discrimination and voiced concerns about an erosion of free speech and freedom of the press in India, the report said.

After trade and investment, most Australians see India’s human rights record as a top bilateral priority, it added.

With China, while fewer Australians say it is a military threat compared to last year, 71 per cent of those polled think it could be.

More Australians – 53 per cent of those polled – think of China as a greater security threat overall than an economic partner, according to the report, reflecting a similar result from last year. Forty-four per cent of those regard China as an economic partner.

Buildings and structures are seen on the artificial island built by China in Subi Reef in October 2022, in the Spratly Islands, South China Sea. Photo: TNS

Australian politicians have raised concerns about China’s military build – up in the past year. While it is lower than the US’ military might, there remain concerns about mainland China’s possible attack on Taiwan and its maritime run-ins in the South China Sea.

Over the weekend in Singapore, China’s new defence minister Dong Jun told the high-profile defence summit, the Shangri-La Dialogue, that while Beijing was committed to a “peaceful reunification” with Taiwan, it would resolutely fight against the island’s independence forces.

He was concerned that some countries would attempt to “use Taiwan to contain China” and said Beijing would not tolerate any nation trying to create war or chaos in the Asia-Pacific region.

Beijing views Taiwan as a renegade province that should be reintegrated into mainland control, by force if necessary. While many nations, including the United States, do not officially acknowledge Taiwan as an independent state, they oppose any use of force to alter the existing status quo.

Australia’s Defence Minister Richard Marles during a plenary session at the Shanghai-La Dialogue Defence Summit in Singapore on Saturday. Photo: EPA-EFE/IISS

On Monday, when asked during a television interview whether China’s comments at the dialogue elevated the threat of a possible war, and if Canberra would participate in defending Taiwan against the mainland, Australian assistant defence minister Matt Thistlethwaite said “Australia wants to maintain peace and stability within the region”.

This echoed Defence Minister Richard Marles’ comments to This Week in Asia over the weekend that most maritime interactions with China were safe, despite some recent skirmishes, and Australia would continue to interact with China to maintain a peaceful bilateral relationship.

Despite this, an overwhelming number of Australians at 75 per cent of those polled said given the country’s alliance with the US, Australia could be drawn into a war in Asia that would not be in its interests.

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