April 4, 2017

Americans’ Views of China Improve as Economic Concerns Ease

In case of conflict, most Americans back using force to defend Asian allies against China

When U.S. President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping meet later this week at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida, the agenda will include a host of thorny issues, including trade, territorial disputes between China and its neighbors, and what to do about North Korea’s growing nuclear capabilities. These issues are also on the minds of many Americans, especially China’s economic impact on the U.S. But concerns about U.S. debt, job losses and trade deficits have generally eased. And over the past year, Americans’ stance toward China has softened.

A new Pew Research Center survey finds 44% of Americans have a favorable opinion of China, up from 37% a year ago. The growth in positive ratings for China may be due in part to declining concerns about economic threats from China. The share of the public that sees the amount of U.S. debt held by Beijing, the loss of jobs to China and the trade deficit with China as very serious problems has dropped significantly in recent years. For example, 61% said the trade deficit was a very serious problem in 2012, compared with 44% today. Concerns about Chinese cyberattacks have, on the other hand, risen to 55% from 50% five years ago.

These shifts in views of China are taking place amid improving assessments of the U.S. economy. Roughly six-in-ten Americans (58%) now say the country’s economic situation is either very or somewhat good, up from 44% in 2016 and 40% in 2015. (For more on ratings of the U.S. economy, see “As Republicans’ views improve, Americans give the economy its highest marks since financial crisis.”)

Still, debt, trade and jobs have not disappeared as sources of concern for Americans, and overall about half the public (52%) continues to see China as more of an economic threat than a military one.

China is viewed as principally a military threat by slightly more than a third of Americans (36%). If an Asian ally such as Japan, South Korea, or the Philippines were to become embroiled in a military conflict with China, most Americans (58%) would back the use of force against Beijing. Nearly two-in-three Republicans (65%) and 62% of independents hold this view. And by a 52%-39% margin, Democrats also favor using force to defend an Asian ally.

Economic and military issues are not the only concerns the public has about China – many also name cyberattacks, China’s impact on the environment and Beijing’s human rights policies as major problems.

In general, Republicans hold more negative attitudes toward China and express stronger worries about economic challenges in the U.S.-China relationship. Most strikingly, 71% of Republicans say job losses to China are a very big problem for the U.S., compared with only 47% of Democrats. While jobs are the top Republican concern about China, among Democrats it is China’s impact on the global environment. More than six-in-ten Democrats (63%) call it a serious problem, compared with only 44% of Republicans.

President Xi gets largely negative ratings from Americans: 60% have not too much or no confidence in him to do the right thing in world affairs. Just 31% say they have a lot or at least some confidence in the Chinese leader.

These are among the key findings of a new Pew Research Center survey, conducted among 1,505 respondents in the U.S. from Feb. 16 to March 15, 2017.

Democrats, young people more favorable toward China

Overall, the American public is closely divided between those expressing favorable and unfavorable views of China. But there are notable differences along partisan lines, with Democrats significantly more likely than Republicans or independents to offer a positive opinion of China.

However, despite a 2016 presidential campaign season that featured a fair amount of negative rhetoric about China from then-candidate Trump and other GOP contenders, ratings have actually become more positive among Republicans. A year ago, 27% had a favorable opinion, compared with 39% today. Democrats also express more positive ratings this year (49% favorable vs. 39% in 2016). Views among independents are essentially unchanged (41% favorable vs. 40% last year).

Another important dividing line in American attitudes toward China is age. Young people are consistently more likely than older people to see China in a favorable light.

Americans see variety of problems in relationship with China

On balance, Americans today tend to be more concerned about China’s economic strength than its military prowess. Still, the share of the public that believes China is primarily a military threat has risen somewhat over time. In 2012, 28% were more concerned about China’s military strength, while 36% now hold this view.

Although economic concerns about China have become less prevalent in recent years, many Americans are still worried about China’s economic strength. The amount of American debt held by China, for instance, is the top concern among the eight sources of tension between the two countries included in the survey.

Large majorities of Americans consider all eight of these issues at least a somewhat serious problem for the U.S., and more than half say the amount of U.S. debt held by China, cyberattacks, China’s environmental impact and job losses are very serious problems.

Republicans are much more concerned than Democrats about the economic aspects of the U.S.-China relationship. They are much less worried than Democrats about China’s impact on the global environment.

In general, older Americans tend to see more serious challenges in U.S.-China relations than young people do. For instance, 53% of those ages 50 and older say China’s human rights policies are a very serious problem, compared with just 38% of 18- to 29-year-olds.