Washington’s views don’t always reflect those of the country at large, at least judging from a survey released this week suggesting that two-thirds of Americans support a policy of friendly cooperation and engagement with China rather than working to limit its power.
The survey results come as official relations between Washington and Beijing continue a downward spiral that started in March 2018 when the Trump administration imposed punitive tariffs on steel and aluminium imports. Since then, the trade war has heated to feverish pitch, spilling over to areas ranging from science, tourism and education to finance, investment and national security.
“Given the attention and anxiety that China is given in DC circles, we would have expected a more fearful, or a sense of threat from the, American public on both sides of the aisle,” said Dina Smeltz, senior public opinion and foreign policy fellow with the Chicago Council of Global Affairs, which conducted the survey.
“But really, Americans are quite pragmatic toward China. They think trade is important, even if they’re divided on tariffs.”
Top Chinese and US negotiators are meeting Thursday and Friday in Washington in a bid to put high-stakes trade talks back on track. Without some sort of agreement, punitive US tariffs on US$250 billion of Chinese goods are set to increase on Tuesday to 30 per cent, up from 25 per cent, with fresh duties of 15 per cent on US$160 billion of mostly consumer products set to go into effect on December 15.
The survey found that 68 per cent of Americans favour continued friendly ties with China compared to 31 per cent who say the US should actively work to check the Asian giant’s power. These views have remained largely consistent, the council said, since it started asking Americans this question in 2006.
The Chicago Council survey draws on responses from 2,000 adults in 50 states polled in June and a similar number questioned in a second survey in July.
Well over half of all those surveyed also support negotiating arms-control agreements with China and support cooperating on international development projects. And some 61 per cent opposed selling arms to Taiwan, the survey found.
A closer look under the hood, however, suggests popular opinion is hardly immune from the trans-Pacific mud fight, particular among Republicans, who were significantly more likely than Democrats to regard China’s rise as a critical threat.
Republicans were also more supportive of using US military power to resolve any potential China-Japan conflict over disputed islands; more in favour of containing China’s growing global influence and more supportive of using trade tariffs to check Chinese imports.
Similarly, while most Republicans wanted to restrict scientific exchange and limit the number of Chinese students studying in the United States, a majority of Democrats opposed these policies.
But authors of the survey said that the direction is clear as the deteriorating political atmosphere affects popular opinion. While those viewing China’s rise as a critical threat has remained roughly consistent since 2002 at around 40 per cent, that figure rose to 54 per cent among Republicans this year, up sharply from 42 per cent of Republicans last year.
“Just as the high-level US-China relationship has taken a sharp turn towards competition, so too have public perceptions of Sino-American relations,” the survey authors wrote. “However, Americans have not fully closed the door to bilateral cooperation, and most Americans do not see the rise of China as a critical threat to the United States.”
Speaking at a Committee of 100 conference in Palo Alto, California, late last month, Susan Shirk, professor at the School of Global Policy and Strategy at the University of California at San Diego, said there was more than enough blame to go around for deteriorating US-China relations.
Shirk, a former deputy assistant secretary of state during the Clinton administration, said that China’s growing economic, military and political clout has led the US to exaggerate its capabilities – even as, under the Trump administration, Washington has eschewed a more normal negotiating style that might help ease tension.
At the same time, she added, China under President Xi Jinping has moved aggressively to dominate key technology industries with its state-led economic model, tightened the screws domestically and adopted a more antagonistic military stance in the South China Sea, threatening its neighbours.
“China and the US have become so fearful of each other that they’re weaponising this communication that we’ve built,” she said. “We’re in the midst of what looks to be a strategic panic.”
According to the survey, Americans view China as the second-most influential country in the world behind their own, with the gap between the two narrowing. The European Union and Russia tied for third place. At the same time, most respondents said they remained confident that the US would maintain military superiority over the Middle Kingdom.
The survey suggested that Americans were also more confident economically than a few years ago, with 67 per cent of respondents viewing the US economy as equal to or stronger than China’s compared with 53 per cent in 2014.
Other surveys, though, point to growing distrust. A poll by the Pew Research Centre released in August found that 60 per cent of Americans had an unfavourable view of China, up from 48 per cent in 2018 and the highest level in the centre’s 14 years of polling on the subject. And a Gallup poll released in March found that just 41 per cent of Americans had a favourable view of China, a 12 percentage-point drop from last year.
“If we continue on this path of escalation, that definitely could contribute to more negative views of China,” Smeltz, of the Chicago Council, said.
“Public opinion is lagging behind the [US foreign policy] elites. And what’s happening in Hong Kong doesn’t help.”
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This article Americans more open to China than Washington seems to be, survey shows first appeared on South China Morning Post