The unprovoked, unjustified and brutal invasion of Ukraine by its nuclear-armed neighbour Russia, a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, represents a remarkable discontinuity in international affairs — possibly the greatest since the Second World War. Far away in Australia, we feel the ripple effects of Moscow’s actions, which violate the key principles of the international system. At this troubling moment, the 2022 Lowy Institute Poll captures the mood of our country.
The issues that Australians have seen as threats in recent years — COVID-19, climate change and cyberattacks — have been eclipsed by anxiety about Russia’s foreign policies.
Almost all Australians are concerned by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Our confidence in Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has fallen to the same levels as that placed in North Korea’s Kim Jong-un. Russia is the country that Australians trust the least.
By contrast, Australians feel very warmly towards Ukraine. Has any country ever remade its global reputation more surely and swiftly than Ukraine? Most Australians favour the welcoming of Ukrainian refugees, the provision of military aid to the war effort and the sanctioning of Russia. The growing cooperation between Russia and China is of great concern to many Australians. Australians see China’s foreign policy as a critical threat. Their trust in China continues to fall, and in a dramatic shift, three-quarters of Australians see China as posing a military threat to Australia in the years to come.
The news of a security agreement between China and Solomon Islands also struck a chord for many. Most Australians see a Chinese military base in the Pacific as concerning, and support the deployment of foreign aid to limit China’s influence in the Pacific.
Australians are increasingly concerned about the potential for great-power competition to spill over into confrontation. The possibility for a war over Taiwan continues to grow as a threat in the Australian mind. This year, for the first time, a majority would support the involvement of the Australian Defence Force if Taiwan were invaded and the United States went to Taiwan’s defence.
The recent behaviour of Russia and China has focused the mind on the differences between authoritarian and democratic systems. Australian support for democracy is at a high watermark in 2022, and a majority of Australians see the rise of authoritarianism as a critical threat to our interests.
In 2022, Australians report feeling unsafe, and as the potential for conflict in our region feels more possible, support for Australia’s alliance with the United States has returned to a record high. The majority of Australians now support increased defence spending and Australia’s plans to acquire nuclear-powered submarines. Around half say the AUKUS partnership between Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States will make Australia and our region safer.
Australia’s relations with the world are now, of course, the responsibility of the new Labor government. The Lowy Institute Poll, in its eighteenth year, reveals that Australians are looking at the world with some concern.