Aussies see China as frenemy: Poll

This picture taken on June 2, 2014 shows the Vietnamese fishing boat "DNA 90152" (L), which was reportedly sunk by a Chinese ship. The annual poll was conducted before escalating tensions over China's claims to islands and territory in the region, including the sinking of a Vietnamese fishing boat in the South China Sea.

Australians increasingly see China as a military threat but, paradoxically, also regard the rising superpower as Australia's best friend in Asia, a new opinion poll has found.

The poll, conducted by the Lowy Institute, shows Australians have surprisingly mixed views towards the rise of China and its growing military might.

Forty-eight per cent said they thought it was likely China will become a military threat to Australia in the next 20 years - up by 7 per cent from last year. And 56 per cent expressed wariness of Chinese investment in Australia; only 34 per cent said the amount was appropriate - a level consistent for the last four years.

However, when asked which country was Australia's best friend in Asia, 31 per cent of Australians named China first. Japan was second, at 28 per cent, and Singapore third, at 12 per cent.

"Australians have very mixed feelings towards China," said Dr Michael Fullilove, the institute's executive director.

"What's remarkable about these findings is that one in two Australians thinks we may be in a military conflict within two decades with our largest trading partner - a country many people today see as our best friend in Asia."

The annual poll, to be released today, surveyed 1,150 people from Feb 12 to 27. This was before escalating tensions over China's claims to islands and territory in the region, including the sinking of a Vietnamese fishing boat in the South China Sea.

The institute's director of polling, Ms Alex Oliver, said Australians seemed to take a "pragmatic" approach, recognising the extent of trade ties with China while remaining wary of Beijing's strategic intentions. China, she noted, has now been Australia's biggest trading partner for seven years.

"There is a quite perceptive sense that the military strength is there and increasing, but also a pragmatic sense that Australian prosperity depends on strong links with China in terms of trade," she said. "There has been a fair bit of press about China's actions in the East China Sea and South China Sea in the past 12 months."

Asked about the biggest threat to Australia, Australians ranked international terrorism first, with 65 per cent of people seeing it as a critical threat. The second on the threat list was the possibility of unfriendly countries developing nuclear weapons, at 64 per cent. However, both were down significantly from 2006. The poll found the lowest-rated threat - from a list of 12 - was US foreign policy, at 26 per cent, down from a high of 57 per cent in 2005.

"We now have more than a decade since the first Bali bombings and the September attacks," Ms Oliver said. "The amount of time that has lapsed and the absence of a major terrorism threat might have contributed to an Australian sense of peacefulness with respect to terrorism." On spying on seven nations, China was seen as the most "acceptable" target, with 65 per cent saying they accepted it. Second was Indonesia, at 62 per cent.

Curiously, Australians seemed willing to spy on countries typically regarded as allies and close friends. While neighbouring New Zealand was at the bottom of the list, 51 per cent of people said spying on it was acceptable; 53 per cent supported spying on France and 54 per cent on the US. "Australians are remarkably sanguine about their government's espionage practices and spying on other countries," Ms Oliver said.

"More Australians say it is acceptable than not, even against countries you would have to say Australia has good relations with."

The poll also found 40 per cent of Australians believe relations with Indonesia were worsening, 24 points higher than in 2008. This follows tensions over Australia's crackdown on boat people arrivals and revelations about it spying on Indonesian leaders.

Climate change was also seen as a growing issue, with 45 per cent labelling it a serious problem, up 5 points from last year.

This article was first published on June 04, 2014.
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