Three-quarters of Australians believe it is likely China will become a military threat to Australia in the next two decades, but a majority say Australia should remain neutral in the event of a conflict between China and the United States, a new poll has found.

The 2023 Lowy Institute poll, which surveyed more than 2,000 Australians in March on a range of issues, also found 44% of Australians see China as “more of an economic partner” while 52% see the country as “more of a security threat” – a drop of 11 percentage points on last year.

More than six in 10 Australians see the prospect of a military conflict between the US and China over Taiwan as a critical threat – almost double the proportion in 2020.

The poll also found that 82% of Australians see an alliance with the US as “very important” or “fairly important” to the country’s security, down five points from a record high last year.

But it also found that 74% of Australians think the alliance with the US makes it more likely Australia would be drawn into a war in Asia.

The proportion of Australians who think it is “very” or “somewhat” likely that China will become a military threat to Australia in the next 20 years is now at 75%, 30 points higher than in 2018.

When asked how Australia should respond if China invades Taiwan, 80% supported accepting Taiwanese refugees into Australia and 76% supported imposing economic and diplomatic sanctions on China.

Only 42% supported sending Australian military personnel to Taiwan “to help defend it from China”.

The poll comes against the backdrop of a stabilising diplomatic relationship between Australia and China, according to Ryan Neelam, the director of the Lowy Institute’s public opinion and foreign policy program.

He said that while the past three years have been a “grim time” for Australia’s relationship with China, Australians have seen “glimmers of progress”.

“The decline in the number who see China as a security threat this year probably reflects that people are paying attention to the way Australia and China relations have stabilised,” he said.

“Australians are conscious and they pay attention to what political leaders say, and since the Albanese government has been elected, Beijing has been more conciliatory than it has in previous years and that lowered the temperature of the relationship.”

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Neelam said the findings reflected that Australia was in a “different period” compared to the past three years.

But he said Australians were still “wary” of China, pointing to the low levels of trust Australians have that China will act responsibly in the world, at 15%, and the low levels of confidence in the Chinese president, Xi Jinping (11%). Five years ago, more than half of Australians trusted China to act responsibly in the world.

“Its not exactly a rosy new period of relations, because even the government has been careful about how it frames the state of the relationship, and I think Australian attitudes are in line with that cautious readjustment.”

Support for the Aukus agreement remains steady, with 67% remaining in favour of the submarine pact. Almost half of Australians do not the think the nuclear-powered submarines are worth the cost.

Cyber-attacks from other countries now tops the list of threats worrying Australia, with 68% saying it is as a “critical threat” to Australia in the next 10 years.

It comes on the back of Optus, Medicare and Latitude data breaches, with Neelam saying concern around cybersecurity had been steadily rising in the past couple of years.

“Those three attacks in the past 12 months would have really brought it home for people, particularly as we’ve seen medical and financial records publicised.

“And if we consider the rate and severity of the attacks, it only makes sense that this will continue to be a source of anxiety for Australians.”


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