11 June 2016
by Greg Earl

Opinion poll reveals Australians split over what to do about the US and China

Malcolm Turnbull sought to wrap himself in John Howard's foreign policy success on Thursday night when he declared that his predecessor was ahead of his time in recognising the US role in Asia would grow rather than recede.

Speaking at an anniversary function for Sydney University's US Studies Centre (USSC) and the American Australian Association, the prime minister said: "John understood that the US is the irreplaceable anchor to the global rules-based order – an order built upon shared political values and common economic and security interests.

"The truth of his insight has been affirmed by every subsequent prime minister. It is clearer now than it has been for decades that the US is pivotal to the rules-based order upon which our regional peace and prosperity depends."

But only a day earlier the very same organisation Turnbull and Howard were celebrating had dropped a proverbial dead skunk in the midst of the celebration.

The USSC and its dynamic new partner in Perth the USAsia Centre, run by Gordon Flake, released groundbreaking new research which raises a difficult question about who is really driving Australia's approach to immense geostrategic changes in Asia: the Canberra political elite (and its US associates) or the population.

The detailed opinion poll-based research with think tanks in Japan, China, South Korea and Indonesia showed in unprecedented detail how Australians seem to be embracing the rise of China and perhaps the relative decline of the US with greater equanimity than other Asians.

Remarkably more Australians think that China is the most influential country than people in China who have to rely on a mostly nationalistic media for information. Sixty nine per cent of Australians think China is most influential while 22 per cent think the US is most influential.

This compares with with 56 per cent of Chinese (40 per cent back the US), 39 per cent of Japanese (48 per cent for the US), 35 per cent of Koreans (60 per cent for the US) and 22 per cent of Indonesians (47 per cent for the US).

When asked which nation will be the most influential in 10 years 77 per cent of Chinese say it will be China while 64 per cent of Australian agree with this. By that time only 11 per cent of Australians think the US will be most influential, which is the lowest level in the region. And at that time Japanese and Indonesians remain relatively evenly divided over China or the US.

Other questions show how Australians seem to accept the rise of China, embrace its opportunities and place a relatively lower value on the alliance with the US which has been the cornerstone of foreign policy since World War II.

This clearly sets them apart from people in Japan where there is both scepticism and clear concern about rising China and Indonesia where there is both lack of recognition about China and some scepticism about the US.

USSC chief executive Simon Jackman says: "The Australian public has reached a point that analysts have been predicting wouldn't come for decades, that China is the most dominant country in the Asia-Pacific. Australians want closer ties with both the United States and China, but are more enthusiastic about strengthening the China relationship."

This is a particularly challenging development coming at a time when China is trying to increase its soft power in Australia with media content deals after controversy over its investments. At the same time the US is trying to draw Australia into taking a tougher or at least more forthright approach to managing China's increasingly forceful territorial claims in the South China Sea and in disputed maritime territory with Japan.

The USSC polling provides more detail on a contradictory trend which has previously been identified in Lowy Institute polling. This is that Australians have warned to China despite its authoritarianism and territorial claims, but still anticipate that it will be responsible for a regional conflict.

The USSC found that Australians see China as more influential than the US in Australia but place a higher value on a closer relationship with it.

But Australians still think China is more likely than the US to start a regional conflict by a margin of 17 to 10 per cent. In contrast 37 per cent of Japanese think China will start a conflict compared 3 per cent for the US.

USSC research director James Brown says: 'While Australians are acutely aware of competition in the US‑China relationship they are relatively sanguine on the potential for that competition to descend into conflict and somewhat ambivalent about any need to support US objectives in the region."

The contrast between popular opinion and elite attitudes was underlined by the way the USSC research collides with some of the foreign policy recommendations to the next government from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) which were also released this week.

ASPI director Peter Jennings has called for a major refurbishment of the US alliance to reflect the fact that Australia gets most of its defence capability and intelligence from the US. He says this "doubling down" on the alliance is the "only financially possible way for Australia to maintain an ADF based on high technology equipment."

But this may be challenging given the equivocal views of the voters revealed by the USSC. Indeed Jennings' colleague Mark Thomson has identified how this divergence may have its first practical impact when it comes to sustaining promised bipartisan support for higher defence spending.

"If plans for a stronger and larger defence force are to become a reality, the public will have to be convinced that the sacrifices they are making in higher taxes, reduced services, or both, are worth the pain," Thomson warns.