China has long had Australia in its sights, and money is its favored weapon. China accounts for roughly a third of Australia’s export earnings. Until recently, it was also a big investor in Australia. Chinese international students occupy 10 percent of all university places in Australia, and Beijing has funded Confucius Institutes at 13 of Australia’s 37 public universities. China-linked donors fund several Australian think tanks advancing China-friendly policies. Nearly every major public institution in Australia has a “China strategy.” China’s presence looms even larger in Australia’s much smaller neighbor, New Zealand. If there’s one region of the (notionally) Western world where China has staked its claim to the future, it’s in the Antipodes.
Yet the proportion of Australians who hold a favorable view of China has plummeted from 64 percent to just 15 percent over the last three years, according to a Pew Global Attitudes poll released last week. (New Zealand wasn’t surveyed.) The proportion of Australians who view China unfavorably has risen to 81 percent, with only 3 percent undecided. Australia’s changing mood on China is part of a global shift, but it’s the most extreme reversal among the 12 countries Pew regularly surveys and started before the coronavirus. Despite a widespread and long-standing perception in Australia that its economic future depends on China, it turns out that—at least when it comes to public diplomacy—money can’t buy you love.