Australians' views of China: we need to go deeper than 'fear and greed'
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Australians' views of China: we need to go deeper than 'fear and greed'

Why are we so confused about this bilateral relationship?

The results of this year's Lowy Institute poll indicate Australians' attitudes towards China are somewhat conflicted. When asked about the likelihood of China becoming a military threat to Australia in the next 20 years, 46 per cent of Australians said it was likely. But when asked if China is presently more of an economic partner or military threat, 79 per cent said "economic partner".

This suggests that while many people are wary of China, they are keeping their eyes on the economic benefits that a relationship with China offers. What Australians may describe as a "pragmatic" approach to the relationship, the Chinese see as confusing and opportunistic. This does little good for our bilateral ties, which are crucial for Australia's national interests.

China's Premier, Li Keqiang, and Australia's Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull.

China's Premier, Li Keqiang, and Australia's Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull.Credit:Andrew Meares

This year's Lowy poll results, released last month, show a 7 percentage point increase in the number of Australians who think China will be a military threat to Australia in the next 20 years – following a decrease from 2014-15. While concerned about China's military intentions, only 34 per cent would support the use of Australian military forces "if China initiated a military conflict" with a neighbour over disputed islands or territories. But 68 per cent of us favour Australia conducting "maritime operations designed to ensure freedom of navigation in the region", despite some strong arguments about why that might not be a good idea.

Why are we so confused about what China means to us? One important reason is that a lot of the information we're provided with about China portrays the relationship in exactly those binary terms: an economic opportunity and/or a security threat. What Tony Abbott so succinctly described as "fear and greed". How much we need China for our economic prosperity is a topic of some debate. However, China's potential risk to Australian security interests is largely taken for granted in reporting, even if at times without solid foundation, as I have argued was the case with the recent Four Corners program on Chinese influence.

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Presumably, most Australians would prefer if China did not become a military threat. Yet, somewhat ironically, this confused "fear and greed" way of understanding our bilateral relationship runs a real risk of entrenching the very threat we're afraid of. The Chinese are fully aware of how Australia sees China; it does not endear us to them. Many Chinese I have spoken to feel increasingly strongly that Australia is out to get what it can from trade and investment with China, but at the same time takes any opportunity to publicly scold and shame it. The result in China is a sense that Australia is duplicitous and untrustworthy. As one Chinese person described it to me, "grabbing with one hand, and slapping our face with the other".

The Chinese understanding of Australia having a Janus-faced view of them perpetuates a negative cycle. It strengthens China's narrative of humiliation and persecution by outsiders, namely the West (let's be honest: we mean America, and by extension, where necessary, Australia). It further entrenches the powerful world view that China must rise up and throw off the shackles of humiliation and deliberate oppression. It feeds into the desire among Chinese people to prove themselves worthy against those around them, rather than cooperating with them. All of this adds up to a China that is less likely to behave as a "responsible stakeholder" in global affairs, according to Australia's definition of the term.

It is impossible to say with any certainty whether China will be a military threat to Australia in the next two decades. However, if we want to prevent that, we need to work hard. A stitch in time, as they say. In particular, we need to invest far more in our public diplomacy as a tool of soft power. That is, Australians at all levels need to demonstrate to Chinese people at all levels that how Australia understands a "good" regional order is something China could be an active part of. We need to show Australia is forward-thinking, inclusive, fair, open-minded and just, and that we support those values internationally. We are not just about "fear and greed".

I am not suggesting Australia try to appease China, or accommodate it, or accede to any unreasonable demands that are not in line with our national interests. Rather, I argue that the latest Lowy poll results indicate an ambivalence in Australian attitudes towards China which is not an ideal foundation for a healthy bilateral relationship – a relationship critical to our future prosperity.

Dr Merriden Varrall is director of the East Asia program at the Lowy Institute for International Policy.