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Aussies have a mixed outlook on a mixed-up world

Australians have always had a confused relationship with their place in the world, our policy of deference to “great and powerful friends” typifies this, but in an increasingly unpredictable and mixed-up world, our outlook is equally confused.

Australians have always had a confused relationship with their place in the world, our policy of deference to “great and powerful friends” typifies this, but in an increasingly unpredictable and mixed-up world, our outlook is equally confused.

As both a nation and a people, Australia has had a long, convoluted and confused relationship with its place both in the world at large and our place in the Indo-Pacific.

Our comparatively small population and geographic isolation from our “great and powerful friends”, coupled with the largely inhospitable nature, immense wealth and prosperity of this vast island continent, has only reinforced our sense of confusion, apprehension, and collective anxiety.


The history of the 20th century only served to exacerbate these feelings, culminating in the fallout following the fall of Singapore in early-1942 and Australia’s pivot from the British Empire to the United States as primary strategic benefactor.

While the Cold War period and the immediate decades of stability and peace following the collapse of the Soviet Union went a long way towards shifting the psyche of the nation and its policymakers, in many ways, it established a false reality that is like a runaway train now rapidly approaching.

This period also fundamentally reshaped the nation’s relationship with power and its application on the global stage as the United States stood unopposed as the world’s sole superpower, effectively lulling us into a false sense of security that the world would forever remain this benign and the US would continue to reign supreme.

Today, we know that was naive optimism as the world around us has rapidly become a more dangerous, competitive, and unpredictable environment characterised in large by the simmering competition between the United States and the People’s Republic of China.

Recognising this period of tumult, the Lowy Institute has conducted a series of polling to compare against similar polling taken by the institute over the past two decades to gauge the changing thinking of Australians in the face of this era of mounting great power competition.

China’s wolf warrior diplomacy continues to shatter Aussie trust

It is no secret that Beijing’s campaign of coercive, “wolf warrior” diplomacy and ongoing antagonism in the South China Sea has served to shatter the trust of Australians, with recent “attacks” on Australian military personnel only serving to galvanise the feeling of Australians toward our largest economic partner.

Highlighting this, Ryan Neelam of Lowy Institute stated, “One of the most striking features in the last several years of Lowy Institute Polling has been Australians’ lack of trust in China. In 2024, despite some slight improvement, only 17 per cent of Australians express any level of trust in China to act responsibly, and only 12 per cent say they have confidence in President Xi Jinping. At the same time, threat perceptions remain high – 7 in 10 (71 per cent) think it likely that China will become a military threat to Australia in the next 20 years.”

However, as Neelam stated, this sharp decline in trust is a recent phenomenon, with Lowy’s first poll in 2005 revealing “7 in 10 Australians (69 per cent) had positive feelings towards China. More Australians were positive about the free trade agreement we had just started negotiating with China than the one that had just been sealed with the United States. Only 35 per cent of Australians were worried about ’China’s growing power’, which ranked lowest on a list of potential threats”.

For many Australians, this sense of optimism towards the Australia–China relationship continued well into the 2010s and not significantly changing until 2020 following the efforts of the Morrison government to launch an international investigation into the origins of COVID-19, which resulted in a barrage of trade tariffs against the nation, effectively allowing Australians to see that the mask had slipped.

Neelam added, “The election of the Albanese government in 2022 provided a circuit-breaker. But just as the Labor government frames official ties as a ‘stabilisation’ rather than as a reset, so too have public perceptions remained cautious. Now, half of Australians (51 per cent) say Australia should place more importance on a stable relationship with China, while 45 per cent say Australia should prioritise working with allies to deter China’s use of military force – even if it means harming the relationship.”

Concerns about America’s ‘predictability’

Meanwhile, Australia’s relationship with the United States has equally been called into question by the Australian people, as the world’s superpower remains bogged down in domestic and international turmoil dramatically impacting the capacity of the US to maintain the post-Second World War economic, political, and strategic order.

This has only been exacerbated in recent years by concerns over the Trump presidency and his transactional approach towards allies and international “norms” following his attempts to hold NATO partners to account after decades of underinvestment to the detriment of the United States.

Neelam detailed that despite this, the majority of Australians do retain a high degree of trust in the United States alliance, saying, “In 2024, the vast majority (83 per cent) of Australians see the alliance with the United States as important to our security. Widespread support for the alliance has been one of the most consistent features over the poll’s history.”

However, as mentioned, the Trump presidency has had some impact on the level of confidence and comfort towards the US–Australia alliance, with other incidents like the Iraq War equally having a major impact on the sentiment, with Neelam saying, “But Australians have long harboured misgivings about the implications of the alliance, whether it was regarding the US invasion of Iraq, which divided the country, or the sense now, held by 75 per cent of Australians, that our security ally could draw Australia into a war in Asia.”

Going further, Neelam added, “At the same time, we face the prospect of two very different Americas after the presidential election in November. And on that note, while confidence in US President Joe Biden slipped 13 points to 46 per cent, when judged against his opponent, two-thirds (68 per cent) would prefer to see Biden re-elected. Nearly 1 in 3 (29 per cent) prefer Donald Trump – the highest level of support for any Republican contender in the last four presidential elections.”

All of this combines to form a particularly murky path forward for Australia to navigate through and will require deft diplomacy, a degree of independent military capability, and a coherent idea of the nation’s future in the Indo-Pacific.

Final thoughts

Importantly, in this era of renewed competition between autarchy and democracy, this is an uncomfortable conversation that needs to be had in the open with the Australian people, as ultimately, they will be called upon to help implement it, to consent to the direction, and to defend it should diplomacy fail.

Our economic resilience, capacity, and competitiveness will prove equally as critical to success in the new world power paradigm as that of the United States, the United Kingdom, or Europe, and we need to begin to recognise the opportunities presented before us.

Expanding and enhancing the opportunities available to Australians while building critical economic resilience, and as a result, deterrence to economic coercion, should be the core focus of the government because only when our economy is strong can we ensure that we can deter aggression towards the nation or our interests.

This also requires a greater degree of transparency and a culture of innovation and collaboration between the nation’s strategic policymakers, elected officials, and the constituents they represent and serve – equally, this approach will need to entice the Australian public to once again invest in and believe in the future direction of the nation.

Additionally, Australia will need to have an honest conversation about how we view ourselves and what our own ambitions are. Is it reasonable for Australia to position itself as a “middle” or “regional” power in this rapidly evolving geopolitical environment? Equally, if we are going to brand ourselves as such, shouldn’t we aim for the top tier to ensure we get the best deal for ourselves and our future generations?

If we are going to emerge as a prosperous, secure, and free nation in the new era of great power competition, it is clear we will need break the shackles of short-termism and begin to think far more long term, to the benefit of current and future generations of Australians.

Get involved with the discussion and let us know your thoughts on Australia’s future role and position in the Indo-Pacific region and what you would like to see from Australia’s political leaders in terms of partisan and bipartisan agenda setting in the comments section below, or get in touch at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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