China Power

China Seen as US Threat, Kind of

What do Americans think of China? A new Pew Research Center survey shows it’s a mixed bag.

With Hu Jintao travelling to Washington next week, now’s a good time to consider what Americans really think of China. The Pew Research Center has a new survey out this week covering this very question, looking at views of China in the United States and elsewhere, as well as asking respondents for their take on where Sino-US relations should be heading.

Unsurprisingly, Europe is seen as of diminishing importance to the United States, with a little over a third of Americans saying Europe was the most important area for the US, compared with 50 percent who said so in 1993. And as Europe has fallen, Asia has risen – 47 percent of Americans now say Asia is the most important area, compared with 31 percent back in 1993. As a former senior official in the Bush administration once put it to me, Europe is seen as ‘complete’ by many Americans, and they’re now looking forward – and elsewhere.

On China specifically, American views of China are relatively moderate, at least when compared with some other nations (including a few of its neighbours). Almost half of Americans have a favourable view of China, compared with in India and South Korea, where a little more than a third of those surveyed have a positive view. In Japan, only a quarter of those surveyed viewed China favourably, while 69 percent had an unfavourable view – the highest of any country. This is perhaps not surprising considering the tense year and the much-commented on overbearing response of China to the detention of a trawler captain whose vessel rammed Japan Coast Guard ships.

Perhaps more interestingly (and wrongly) almost half of Americans (47 percent) believe China is the world’s leading economic power, compared with 31 percent who said the United States is (goodness knows what the other 29 percent were thinking…) This marks a sharp turnaround from February 2008, when 41 percent picked the US, compared with 30 percent who chose China. This change will be in no small part down to the confidence knock Americans took during the global financial crisis, and is perhaps understandable given the fact that US unemployment still hovers around double figures.

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This downbeat view of the relative US position will also have fed the view that something needs to be done, namely getting tougher with China on trade issues. These sentiments were fuelled by a number of candidates in November’s mid-terms, and according to Pew, 85 percent of Americans believe the US government should get tougher with China over trade (this compares with 72 percent who think more should be done on human rights and also on the environment).

So, with 88 percent of Americans believing ties should be strengthened with China, have the growing concerns of China’s neighbours – and US policymakers – over its increasing assertiveness gone unnoticed? Not exactly – China is seen as the biggest threat to the United States, with 20 percent of Americans naming it the country that's the main danger. North Korea came in second with 18 percent, and Iran third with 12 percent.