Australians fear attack from China almost as much as Taiwanese do, survey finds

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More than four in 10 Australians are worried China may attack Australia, according to new polling, expressing a level of fear that is nearly as high as among Taiwan’s population.

The Australia Institute, a progressive thinktank that commissioned polling in both Australia and Taiwan, said the “astounding” findings may be partly explained by some government figures in Canberra “beating the drums of war”.

When the 603 people polled in Australia were asked whether they thought China would launch an armed attack on Australia, 6% said soon and 36% said some time – totalling 42%.

When a similar question was asked of the 606 respondents in Taiwan – whether they thought China would launch an armed attack on Taiwan – 4% said soon and 47% said some time – or a total of 51% of the sample.

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The proportion of the respondents who said “never” was 24% among Australians and 14% among Taiwanese, with the rest saying they were unsure or did not know.

Allan Behm, the head of the international and security affairs program at the Australia Institute, said there was “no doubt that China’s recent actions and anti-China rhetoric in Australia have generated fear and insecurity in the Australian community”.

“Given Australia and Taiwan’s historical and geographical differences, it is astounding that Australians could be more fearful than Taiwan in anticipating an attack from China,” said Behm, a former defence official and former adviser to Labor figures Greg Combet and Penny Wong.

“For the Taiwanese, potential war and its consequences remain very real while Australians – and those ‘beating the drums of war’ – may not fully comprehend what a war with China would entail.”

Australia’s national interests were “not served by clarion calls to war”, Behm said.

The defence minister, Peter Dutton, said in April the risk of conflict over Taiwan could not be “discounted”. Around the same time, the secretary of the Department of Home Affairs, Michael Pezzullo, said “free nations” were again hearing “the beating drums” towards conflict and needed to brace “for the curse of war”.

The Australians were also asked whether they thought China would launch an armed attack on Taiwan, with 13% saying soon and 36% some time, or a total of 49%.

And when asked whether Australia should send its defence forces to Taiwan to fight for their freedom “if China incorporated Taiwan”, 38% agreed and 29% disagreed and 34% did not know or were unsure.

The Chinese Communist party (CCP) considers Taiwan to be a province of China despite the party never having ruled the island, and has vowed to take it by force if necessary.

Last week, as he marked the centenary of the CCP, China’s president, Xi Jinping, said resolving the Taiwan question was an “unshakeable commitment” and he vowed to take “resolute action to utterly defeat any attempt toward ‘Taiwan independence’”.

Melissa Conley Tyler, a research associate in the Asia Institute of the University of Melbourne and co-author of the polling report, said she was “astonished that a similar number of Australians think China will launch an armed attack on Australia as in Taiwan”.

“It is doubtful that any military planner in the world would agree with this assessment, which begs the question of what is stoking this fear,” she said.

Conley Tyler, who is in Taiwan as a visiting fellow funded by a Taiwan ministry of foreign affairs fellowship, questioned whether Taiwan could rely on Australia in a crisis.

“With these polling numbers, I would advise Taiwanese not to be sure,” she said.

Some commentators, in Australia and elsewhere, have argued that politicians who played up the prospect of war over Taiwan could inadvertently serve China’s goals.

“Creating conditions of fear around large-scale conflict divides the international community, isolates Taiwan and creates conditions for striking a grand bargain on Beijing’s terms,” Lowy Institute research fellow Natasha Kassam and University of Tasmania senior lecturer Mark Harrison wrote in a piece for Guardian Australia.

But Dutton has previously defended his commentary about the risk of war over Taiwan, saying it was “more important than ever that we have a frank and nuanced discussion with the Australian people about the threats we face”.

In June, Dutton argued leaders “cannot simply seek to ringfence Australians from complex and difficult issues”. He described the region as “far more complex and far less predictable than at any time since the second world war”.

The Australia Institute conducted its poll between 11 and 27 June, using nationally representative samples by gender and region. The margin of error for the national results – conducted online through Dynata polling – is 4%.

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