Australians trust US President Donald Trump less than Chinese President Xi Jinping, and many view Trump’s presidency as a “critical” threat to their country, according to a national survey published Wednesday.
The 2018 Lowy Institute Poll, an annual survey of Australian views on foreign policy published by an independent think tank, showed that a mere 30% of Australians had confidence in Trump “to do the right thing regarding world affairs,” as opposed to 43% feeling confident in Xi.
It follows a tumultuous year for Australia’s foreign relations which saw the relationship with both Washington and Beijing fluctuate amid a changing power dynamic in Asia.
Relations between Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and the newly elected US leader got off to a shaky start following a heated first phone call, while concerns over Chinese interference in Australian politics frayed ties with Beijing towards the end of 2017.
“The fluctuation with the United States stems from a disappointment – one is our ally and one isn’t and I suspect our expectations are higher with the US. When we hit a rocky patch in relations between the US and Australia, or their leaders, that puts us on edge,” Lowy Institute’s Director of Research Alex Oliver said.
The new survey shows only 55% of adults surveyed trust the US to “act responsibly in the world,” a 28-point drop from 2011 and the lowest percentage ever recorded in the survey.
Beijing in comparison was ranked almost equal to America, with 52% of respondents trusting both countries equally. The UK, Japan, France and India all had higher levels of trust in Australia than both countries.
Perhaps even more worrying for the United States is that 42% of Australians said “Trump’s presidency” is a critical threat to their country – higher than foreign political interference (41%), migration (40%) and China’s growing power (36%).
Although the Lowy Institute didn’t ask Australians about their confidence in former US President Barack Obama during his time in office, Oliver said he was very popular across the country.
“In our 2015 survey he was the most admired leader, amongst a group of leaders which included Pope Francis, Angela Merkel and Hillary Clinton,” she said.
Concerns over political interference
Almost one-in-three of those surveyed were concerned about China’s influence in Australia’s political processes, a topic which has received a lot of attention since December.
At the end of last year, Prime Minister Turnbull announced sweeping legislation to crack down on foreign interference in Australia, after an opposition Labor Party senator was forced to resign over accusations of undue influence from Beijing.
But Oliver pointed out that Australians’ impressions of Beijing were actually mostly unchanged despite the huge emphasis placed on interference in recent months.
“Sentiments to China haven’t shifted since last year, so despite this debate and despite China’s apparent umbrage at Australia for taking too firm a stance on foreign interference, it hasn’t affected ordinary Australians’ feelings,” she said.
In fact, almost an equal number of Australians are concerned over US influence in the country, 58% of those surveyed compared to 63% worried about Chinese influence.
The survey shows Australians are also concerned about the level of Chinese investment in the country. Seventy-two percent of adults said the government allowed “too much investment from China,” up from 56% in 2014.
However the survey noted Australians believe “that China represents more of an opportunity than a threat, and that Australia should be able to maintain good relationships with China and the United States at the same time.”
Eighty-two percent saw China more as an economic partner than a military threat, and despite Trump’s unpopularity, over three quarters of respondents supported the US alliance. Fifty-five percent said they viewed China as the world’s leading economic power.
“They’re wary of (Beijing) in a number of respects, but that doesn’t dent the confidence this is an important relationship,” Oliver said.