SYDNEY - Australians would overwhelmingly reject siding with close ally Japan against top trade partner China over a dispute in the East China Sea and prefer to remain neutral, according to a survey published Tuesday.
Beijing and Tokyo have been engaged in a long and bitter battle over ownership of a contested island chain, known as Diaoyu in China and Senkaku in Japan.
Australia has a long-standing military alliance with Japan's close ally the United States, which could arguably see it drawn into the dispute.
But a poll commissioned by the Australia-China Relations Institute at the University of Technology, Sydney, suggested that 71 per cent of Australians would prefer to remain neutral should a conflict arise.
"The poll confirms Australians overwhelmingly want their country to stay neutral," said former foreign minister Bob Carr, director of the institute, an independent research think-tank.
Asked what Australia should do if armed conflict broke out between Japan, the United States and China over the islands, only 15 per cent said they supported backing a Japan-US alliance.
Four per cent said Australia should back China and nine per cent were unsure, the poll of more than 1,000 Australians found.
Should the US president call and ask the Australian prime minister to join in supporting Japan, 68 per cent said Australia should declare itself neutral and not make a military contribution.
Fourteen per cent said Canberra should join its allies in war while 17 per cent were unsure.
Carr said as far as the public was concerned, Australia was not obliged under the Australia-New Zealand-United States (ANZUS) treaty to make a commitment.
The treaty binds Australia, New Zealand and the United States to cooperate on defence matters.
"We know that Australians overwhelmingly support the ANZUS treaty but this poll confirms they do not want it invoked in conflict between China and Japan over the islands in the East China Sea," he said.
Australia and Japan have recently moved to strengthen military and economic ties, and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has described Canberra as Tokyo's "best friend".
But China is Australia's biggest trading partner, with the two-way flow exceeding Aus$150 billion (S$162,225 million).