China's Most Dangerous Enemy Is Global Public Opinion

Ordinary citizens are steering their countries' policies toward Beijing.

If the past is any guide, China will become more of a target as the U.S. presidential campaign enters its final phase. Republican candidate Donald Trump’s statements about levying high tariffs on imports from China have already elicited rebukes from senior financial officials, and Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton’s perceived hard-line security views toward China are a source of discomfort for Beijing’s leadership.

Such sentiments exemplify the intense scrutiny that China’s economic and foreign policies receive in the United States. and abroad. Whether one is a politician, a foreign investor or a diplomat, one is influenced by beliefs shaped by location and values, as gleaned from major public opinion polls. Political, economic and security considerations influence views, and together they explain why relations between China and the United States. and its allies in Asia are under increasing stress.

Sentiments towards China featured prominently in the 2012 U.S. presidential election, with both incumbent Barack Obama and his challenger Mitt Romney competing to be the candidate who would be harder on China if elected. Not surprisingly, Pew surveys of Americans that year showed that voters thought it more important to get tougher on China (49 percent) than to build stronger relations (42 percent)—but two years later, as politically driven imperatives subsided, the sentiments reversed, with 51 percent favoring stronger relations and 43 percent arguing for getting tougher.

This time around, China-related issues have featured less in the primary campaigns, given the dominance of personality and Washington-centric ideological infighting. But once the nominations have been made, neither side will want to be seen as being softer on China, driven by escalating protectionist sentiments at home and the administration’s rebalancing of power in Asia.

Public perceptions have nurtured these positions. Opinion polls show that most Americans worry about China’s increasing economic strength, and think China is untrustworthy. A majority of both Democrats and Republicans hold China responsible for the United States’ trade deficits and outsourcing of jobs abroad, with Republicans significantly more negative than Democrats. This has encouraged punitive actions including countervailing tariffs and claims with the WTO that China’s exports are unfairly subsidized.

It has also provided a rationale for the United States’ major trade initiative, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), to exclude China, consistent with the view that most Americans believe that China’s trade practices are unfair. The TPP is now being questioned by both parties and to sell it, many of its advocates are relying on the argument that it is the best option for checking China’s influence in the economic arena. Such sentiments also fuel the annual exercise about whether China should be labeled a currency manipulator, even if most trade experts see this as a nonissue.

Globally, there is a marked shift in security concerns coming from China’s increasing economic might and willingness to exercise it. Many see China’s accomplishments as a laudable outcome that has benefited the world. But the majority of Americans see China’s economic rise as a threat to their country’s global stature. Europeans are less preoccupied with power politics, but share America’s worries that Beijing may try to propagate its own style of development and values. There is generally less apprehension in the rest of the world, but views vary significantly, influenced by proximity and colored by history.

Ironically, the Chinese people do not see the United States so negatively, with various polls showing that their sentiments include considerable admiration for American ideas, customs and scientific accomplishments. This reaffirms the major advantage that the United States has in projecting its soft power as a complement to its military superiority.

The U.S.-China relationship is unique because these perceptions have been influenced as much by economic trends as political factors. China’s emergence as the world’s largest trading nation is mirrored in America’s relative economic decline over the past decade, as the latter’s financial vulnerabilities triggered the 2008 global financial crisis, soon followed by Europe’s budgetary woes.

Annual Gallup polls now show that a majority of Americans believe China is the world’s leading economic power. This was not the case in 2000, when only 10 percent named China and 65 percent of Americans considered the United States to be on top. Ironically, despite its economic successes, most Chinese have long felt—and still do—that America is the leading global economic power. As for the rest of the world, with one exception, every other region continues to see the United States as the leading economic power; this view is stronger in Asia than elsewhere. The one exception, somewhat surprisingly, is Europe, which views China as the leading economic power even more than Americans do.