September 18, 2012

U.S. Public, Experts Differ on China Policies

Chapter 3. U.S. Policy Toward China

The public wants the U.S. to be tough with China on economic and trade issues. At the same time, most Americans say it is very important for their country to build a strong relationship with China, including about three-in-ten who say this should be the most important priority for the U.S. in regards to the Asian nation. About one-in-five believe that promoting human rights in China is the most important priority.

Across the five expert groups surveyed, there is a far greater consensus than among the general public that building a strong relationship with China should be the most important priority for the U.S. Being tough with China on economic issues is considered a much lower priority, even among retired military officers and trade and business leaders, who largely believe toughness on economic and trade issues is very important for the U.S.

When asked about the Obama administration’s handling of China, slightly more of the public say it is not being tough enough than say the administration is handling it about right; virtually no one says Obama is being too tough with China. In contrast, solid majorities among most expert groups endorse Obama’s China policy.

Among the public and the experts, few say continuing to sell arms to Taiwan and advocating for more freedom for Tibet are very important priorities for the U.S. A small number across the five expert groups say promoting human rights in China should be the most important priority.

Americans who have heard a lot about relations between China and Taiwan are somewhat divided on whether the U.S. should use military force to defend Taiwan if China were to attack the island, with only slightly more saying the U.S. should use force than saying it should not. Among the experts surveyed, most say the U.S. should use force to defend Taiwan if China were to attack it without a unilateral declaration of independence by Taiwan. There is far less support for U.S. military intervention if an attack from China followed a unilateral declaration of independence by Taiwan.

Obama’s China Policy

The Obama administration’s handling of China receives somewhat mixed reviews from the public — 45% say Obama is not being tough enough, while 39% say Obama’s China policy is about right. In May 2001, in a survey conducted just weeks after a U.S. spy plane landed on the Chinese island of Hainan after colliding with a Chinese fighter jet, more of the public endorsed George W. Bush’s dealings with China than said Bush was not being tough enough (46% vs. 34%) (see “Public Behind Bush On Key Foreign Issues,” released June 11, 2001, by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press).

As was the case in 2001, views of the administration’s dealings with China are divided along partisan lines. Nearly two-thirds of Republicans (65%) say Obama is not being tough enough, while 27% say his policy is about right. Among Democrats, about half (51%) endorse the president’s policy and 35% believe Obama has not been tough enough. A decade ago, 57% of Republicans said the Bush administration’s handling of China was about right and 32% believed the president wasn’t being tough enough; Democrats were somewhat divided, with 40% saying Bush wasn’t tough enough and 34% saying his China policy was about right.

Of the foreign affairs experts surveyed, retired military officers are the most critical of Obama’s handling of China; about half in this group say the administration is not being tough enough, while about a third believe it is about right. In contrast, majorities among the other groups endorse Obama’s policies, with scholars and government officials being particularly supportive.

When asked to describe in their own words what they believe Obama has done best when dealing with China, experts most often mention the president’s general diplomatic approach to the bilateral relationship. Obama is commended for being balanced and consistent – combining aggressiveness when necessary with cooperation when possible.
Government officials, scholars and retired military officers, in particular, also applaud the Obama administration for refocusing efforts on Asia and regional allies, including the increase of military capabilities in the Pacific. They also believe military-to-military communication between China and the U.S. has improved during Obama’s time in office.

Yet, there are concerns that the president has not made much progress on the trade imbalance; business and trade leaders especially fault him for protectionist policies. Experts across the board are also concerned that the Obama administration has inadequately responded to the theft of intellectual property and cyber attacks on businesses.

Policy Priorities

Most Americans (56%) say it is very important for the U.S. to be tough with China on economic and trade issues. Yet, about the same number (55%) say building a strong relationship with China should be a top policy priority. More than half (53%) also consider promoting human rights in China as very important, while considerably fewer say the same about advocating for more freedom for Tibet (36%) and continuing to sell arms to Taiwan (21%).

The view that promoting human rights in China is very important is more widespread than it was in January 2011, when 40% believed this to be a top priority for the U.S. (see “Public’s Global Focus Turns from Europe to Asia,” released January 12, 2011, by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press). Democrats and Republicans alike are more inclined than they were in 2011 to say promoting human rights in China should be a very important priority; 58% of Democrats and 56% of Republicans currently express this view, compared with 43% and 33%, respectively, in 2011; opinions have been more stable among independents (50% now vs. 41% in 2011).1


Across the five expert groups, majorities of at least eight-in-ten consider building a strong relationship with China a very important priority for the U.S. However, there is less consensus regarding other aspects of U.S. policy. For example, about six-in-ten government officials and business and trade leaders want the U.S. to be tough with China on economic and trade issues, but fewer than half in the other three groups consider this a top priority. And while promoting human rights in China is seen as very important by 46% of government officials and 41% of members of the news media, about one-third of business and trade leaders and about one-in-five scholars and former military officers share this view. Just 30% or fewer across the five groups consider advocating for more freedom for Tibet and continuing to sell arms to Taiwan to be very important priorities for the U.S.

When describing in their own words what they believe should be the top priorities for U.S. policies toward China, experts across the board cite economic issues such as the bilateral trade imbalance, the theft of intellectual property and economic espionage through cyber attacks by China. Among business and trade leaders, China’s currency valuation is also mentioned as a major issue.

Experts also consider managing the international balance of power between the two nations a top priority, though they are divided on the best approach. While many say it is important to contain China by preventing a build-up of its military and limiting its growing influence in other areas of the world, there is also a desire to avoid conflict between the two by increasing military-to-military communication and learning to accommodate China’s growth as a world power.

Partisan Differences on Key Priorities

For the most part, among the general public, Republicans, Democrats and independents offer similar views of U.S. policy priorities toward China. There are partisan differences, however, when it comes to the importance of building a strong relationship with China and being tough with the Asian nation on economic and trade issues.

Republicans are far more likely than Democrats and independents to say it is very important for the U.S. to be tough with China on economic and trade issues. About two-thirds (68%) of Republicans express this view, compared with 53% of Democrats and independents.

Conversely, about six-in-ten Democrats and independents (59% each) believe building a strong relationship with China should be a top priority for the U.S., while 48% of Republicans agree.

Areas of Collaboration and Sources of Conflict

Across the five expert groups, the economy is most frequently offered as the best arena for cooperation between the U.S. and China. Given the size of the two nations’ economies, many believe that it is in both countries’ interests to collaborate on fostering global economic stability as well as developing equally beneficial interdependence.

Many also mention the possibility of the U.S. and China jointly addressing common threats, such as climate change, terrorism, health epidemics, instability in the Middle East, and security on the Korean Peninsula as an avenue for cooperation. And all the expert groups agree that the exchange of ideas and people between the two world powers – from cultural interactions to joint scientific research – can improve the bilateral relationship.


On the other hand, when asked about the most likely sources of conflict, the top concern is that regional territorial disputes, such as in the South China Sea, could lead to escalating tensions. Many also say that U.S. efforts to maintain its leadership in the region or Chinese attempts to assert itself militarily could result in a competition for dominance in the Pacific.

Respondents in all expert groups also express concerns about power struggles for influence in other areas of the world, and many raise the possibility of a clash between the U.S. and China over third-party actions, such as North Korea or Iran. Retired military officers and business leaders in particular mention the need for scarce natural resources as a key source of conflict both within the region and other areas of the world.

Among business and trade leaders, economic issues – such as a trade war, theft of intellectual property and currency valuation – are most often cited as likely causes of deteriorating relations between the U.S. and China.

Using Force to Defend Taiwan

Just 10% of Americans say they have heard a lot about relations between China and Taiwan; 54% have heard a little and 34% have heard nothing at all about this issue.

About half (48%) of those who have heard a lot about relations between China and Taiwan say the U.S. should use military force to defend Taiwan if China were to use force against the island; 43% say the U.S. should not use military force to defend Taiwan.

Among the expert groups surveyed, views on whether the U.S. should use military force to defend Taiwan depend on the circumstances of a potential attack by China. Majorities across the five groups would support the use of U.S. military force to defend Taiwan if China moved against the island without a unilateral declaration of independence by Taiwan.

At least six-in-ten government officials, scholars and retired military officers express this opinion, as do somewhat smaller majorities of business and trade leaders and members of the news media.

If China were to use military force following a unilateral declaration of independence by Taiwan, however, at least six-in-ten government officials, business and trade leaders, scholars and members of the media say the U.S. should not use military force to defend Taiwan; half of the retired military officers surveyed share this view.

  1. numoffset=”3″ The current survey was conducted amid news of Chinese human rights activist Chen Guangcheng seeking refuge in the U.S. Embassy in Beijing after escaping from house arrest.