June 22 (UPI) -- Almost half of Australians see China as a potential military threat, according to a new poll.
According to the 2017 Lowy Institute poll, 46 percent of Australians said China is "likely to become a military threat to Australia in the next 20 years." That's a 7 percent increase in two years.
Australians 45 years or older are more likely to have that view, with 56 percent of that demographic viewing the country's largest trading partner as a coming military threat. Among Australians under 44, 38 percent felt the same way.
China has been expanding its military might in the South China Sea, which has had an impact on Australian foreign relations with both China and the U.S.
The U.S., which opposes China's expansion there, has urged the Australian government to take a stronger stance against China or else have a strained relationship with the U.S.
"It's very difficult to walk this fine line between balancing the alliance with the United States and the economic engagement with China," said Assistant Chief of Staff to the US Army Pacific Command, Tom Hanson. "At some point there is going to have to be a decision about which one becomes more of a vital national interest for Australia, in my opinion."
Meanwhile, China has expressed displeasure at Australia's planned boost in military spending, which will increase by more than $21 billion between 2016 and 2016.
"In the hopes of relieving tensions and the possibility of an arms race, we hope that relevant countries can give up joint drills and stop increasing their military presence in the region," said Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Hua Chunying.
Although nearly half of Australians are fretful of a looming military showdown with China, most – 79 percent – view China as more of an economic partner than a deadly enemy.
"When [Australians] think about Australia's relationships in Asia, they see China as Australia's best friend," said Dr. Michael Fullilove, the Lowy Institute's Executive Director. "When they think about the world, however, Australians are Anglospheric in orientation, and see our best friends as New Zealand, the United States, and the United Kingdom."