More than three in four Australians believe the alliance with the United States makes it more likely Australia would be drawn into a war in Asia against the national interest, a new poll shows.
The Lowy Institute’s annual foreign policy poll suggests that Australians are increasingly worried about the rise of authoritarianism and global instability, while their preference for democracy has reached a record high.
Three-quarters of Australians (74%) say “democracy is preferable to any other kind of government”, an increase of nine points from 2019, according to a nationally representative online and telephone survey of 2,006 Australian adults in March.
The Sydney-based thinktank said a gap between older and younger Australians on the importance of democracy, which had been prominent in previous Lowy Institute polling, appeared to have “almost disappeared”.
The poll found strong support for the alliance with the US, even though there was a mix of views about the potential consequences and benefits.
In the 2022 poll, 87% of respondents said the alliance was “very important” or “fairly important” to Australia’s security, reflecting a nine-point increase from last year.
But 77% agreed with the statement: “Australia’s alliance with the United States makes it more likely Australia will be drawn into a war in Asia that would not be in Australia’s interests” – up eight points since 2019.
About three-quarters believed the US “would come to Australia’s defence if Australia were under threat”.
The Anzus alliance, which came into force 70 years ago, does not explicitly guarantee that the US would come to Australia’s aid in such a situation and instead promises consultation.
Each party “recognises that an armed attack in the Pacific area on any of the parties would be dangerous to its own peace and safety and declares that it would act to meet the common danger in accordance with its constitutional processes”.
The Lowy poll found 64% of respondents believed the alliance relationship with the US “makes Australia safer from attack or pressure from China” – up eight points from 2019.
A slim majority of Australians (51%) believe Australia should remain neutral in the event of a military conflict between China and the US, down six points since last year. Forty-six per cent said Australia should support the US in such a war, up five points, while 1% said it should support China.
The Lowy Institute said it had found a “generational difference” on this question: about 55% of people aged over 45 said Australia should support the United States, while only 36% of those aged 18–44 agreed with that approach.
Younger Australians were more likely to say Australia should remain neutral.
The former defence minister Peter Dutton attracted criticism from Beijing late last year when he said it would be “inconceivable” that Australia would not join with its security ally in the event of US military action to defend democratically governed Taiwan.
Dutton said during an election debate last month that Australia was “a great and reliable friend and ally” and was unlikely to “shirk away from our responsibility to be a good ally with the United States”.
The new Australian government has reiterated the longstanding bipartisan position that it opposes any unilateral changes to the status quo across the Taiwan Strait.
The government has also opened dialogue with China and promised to adopt a different “tone”, while declaring that the major points of difference in the relationship remain the same as the former government.
The Lowy poll finds that more than six in ten Australians (65%) say China’s foreign policy poses a critical threat to Australia’s vital interests. This figure has gone up nearly 30 points in the past five years.
Roughly one in eight Australians (12%) trust the Chinese government to act responsibly in global affairs – compared with trust levels of 56% for India and 51% for Indonesia.
France (82%), Japan (87%) and the UK (87%) also attracted high trust scores from Australians, while the US came in at 65%, or 18 points below the Barack Obama-era high.
A narrow majority (52%) believe the Aukus security partnership with the US and the UK will make Australia safer. The view that it will make Australia safer is more likely to be expressed by Australians who lean towards supporting the Liberal and National parties than those who lean towards Labor or Greens.
The Lowy Institute’s polling director, Natasha Kassam, said Russia’s invasion of Ukraine had “shaken Australians’ view of their own security and region”.
“Australia’s new government will find support for more defence spending, tough policies towards China and Russia, and stronger engagement in our region and on the world stage,” she said.
More than half of respondents (55%) said the rise of authoritarian systems of government around the world posed a critical threat to Australia – an increase of 14 points since 2020.
The polling report said only a third of Australians (34%) regarded “political instability in the United States” as a critical threat. But a majority (56%) still saw political instability in the US as “an important but not critical” threat.
The Lowy polling, conducted by the Social Research Centre between 15 and 28 March 2022, has a margin of error of about 2.2%. The results of the annual poll are watched closely by foreign affairs and defence officials in Canberra.