The Developing World Is Not Sold On China’s Rise
Image Credit: flickr/GovernmentZA

The Developing World Is Not Sold On China’s Rise


The Pew Research Global Attitudes Project released an impressive survey of worldwide opinion of China and the U.S, based on interviews of 37,653 people in 39 countries between March and May this year.

Although the poll deserves to be read in full, some of its major conclusions, which have been reported elsewhere, include:

1.      The majority of people now think China will overtake the U.S. as the world’s superpower.
2.      Generally speaking, China’s rise in power has not made it any more popular.
3.      People (particularly non-Muslims) are still more favorable to the U.S. than China, more likely to see Washington as a partner and less likely to see it as an enemy.

However, one of the survey's most interesting findings, in my opinion, was how much the West and "developed" world took China’s rise for granted compared with the "developing" nations.

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For example, in Canada and Europe, only in Italy did less than a majority (48 percent) of respondents say that China is or will eventually become the world’s leading superpower.

Among developed Asia, only in Japan did less than 50 percent of the population (24 percent) believe China was or will be the world’s leading superpower. By contrast, 67 percent of Australians and 56 percent of South Koreans believed that China would overtake the U.S.

However, the Middle East and Arab world is practically a mirror image of the industrialized world, with Palestine being the only country included in the survey where a majority (56 percent) of respondents felt China was or will become the world’s leading state. On the other end of the scale, only 37 percent of Egyptians and 36 percent of Turks felt the same way.

Similarly, in non-developed Asia (excluding China), a slight majority of Pakistanis (51 percent) felt that Beijing would surely become the world’s leading superpower; only 39 percent of Indonesians, 30 percent Malaysians, and 22 percent Filipinos felt China’s rise was inevitable (the Philippines was the lowest number in the entire survey on this question).

Although China has steadily increased its presence in Africa in recent years, not a single African nation had a majority of respondents say they thought China would inevitably be the world’s leading power. The closest were Kenya and South Africa, where 47 and 46 percent of the populations said this, respectively. A mere 25 percent of people in Uganda agreed.

Latin America, including Mexico, was more evenly divided. Slight majorities in Venezuela (52 percent) and Chile (51 percent) felt China will definitely becoming the world’s leading nation, while 50 percent of Mexicans and Argentinians agreed. Only 46 percent of people in Bolivia, 38 percent of respondents in Brazil and 37 percent of individuals in El Salvador felt the same way.

In a few cases, like Japan, Pakistan, and Venezuela, respondents’ answers to this question might be based on how they felt about China or the U.S. Thus, Japanese had the least favorable views of China (5 percent), which might explain why they don’t think Beijing will become the world’s leading nation.

By and large, however, how a country viewed the U.S. or China had little bearing on which country they thought would be the leading power. In fact, if anything, these views were negatively correlated. For instance, the U.S. was least popular in the Middle East and Arab world, with only a majority of Israelis having a favorable view of America. Yet, as noted above, in this region only Palestinians believe it is inevitable that China will overtake the U.S.

By contrast, China was least popular in Europe and Canada, with only a majority of Russians and Greeks having a favorable view of Beijing. Except in those two countries, the U.S. was also more popular than China, often times by a wide margin. Yet in these countries more than anywhere else, China’s rise is viewed as inevitable.

The same held true in much of Asia. The U.S. is viewed considerably more favorable than China in Australia and South Korea, yet both countries see China as the next superpower. Malaysians and Indonesians both viewed China as far more favorable yet don’t necessarily agree that China is destined for superpowerdom.

In Africa the U.S. was more popular than China in every country except Nigeria, but in general both countries were viewed favorably. Indeed, the only country where either was viewed as favorable by less than half of the population was in South Africa, where only 48 percent of respondents viewed China in a positive light.

Both countries were also viewed widely favorable in Latin America, although in some cases—notably, Venezuela and El Salvador—respondents’ favorability toward either the U.S. or China corresponded to whether they viewed China as inevitability becoming the next super power.

It’s hard to know what to make of this. In the abstract, Realist international relations theory would argue that, all things being equal, the more powerful a country is viewed, the less popular it is likely to be. Although it’s essential not to conflate correlation with causation—especially given how little we know about why respondents answered the way they did—some of the data from the poll support this.

The picture is mixed, however, and seems to lend more credibility to Steve Walt’s balance-of-threat theory, which contends that not all power is viewed equally, but rather who wields it is important. Thus, Venezuela may see China as destined to be the world’s leading power, but still holds greater disdain for the U.S., whereas Japan and the Philippines do not view China’s rise as inevitable but favor the U.S. nonetheless.

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