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China-US relations

Fewer Americans see China positively as trade tensions worsen, Pew study finds

Only 38 per cent saw the country favourably in weeks before trade war began, with economic threats topping their list of worries, according to survey

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 29 August, 2018, 2:03am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 29 August, 2018, 1:03pm

Americans have become less positive about China as trade tensions mount and they worry more about the Asian giant’s growing economic clout, according to new data from the Pew Research Centre.

Only 38 per cent of Americans saw China favourably when surveyed by the Washington-based think tank between May and June – weeks before the trade war kicked off, with billions in tariffs levelled on both sides – down from 44 per cent at the same time last year.

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“As trade tensions rise, fewer Americans see China favourably,” the Pew report, published on Wednesday, said. “[There is a] resurgence in US concern over China’s growing economy … most Americans say they are more concerned about China’s economic strength than its military capabilities.”

The findings, which drew from phone interviews with 1,500 individuals, showed economic threats were at the top of Americans’ list of worries about the bilateral relationship as trade frictions intensified in recent months.

Washington and Beijing have traded billions in punitive tariffs since July, after months of heated accusations from US President Donald Trump’s administration that China has employed unfair trade and intellectual property practices.

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Among Trump’s accusations is China’s record-high trade surplus with the US, the long-term shift of manufacturing jobs from America to countries such as China, and Chinese theft of US technology.

In the Pew report, the majority of surveyed Americans – 62 per cent – believed that US debt to China was a “very serious” issue, with 27 per cent saying it was “somewhat serious”. Beijing holds around US$1.2 trillion in US Treasury bonds.

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Other major concerns for most respondents were the threat of Chinese cyberattacks, China’s impact on the global environment, the loss of US jobs to China, the growing trade deficit, and China’s human rights policies.

But of the eight issues included in the survey, Americans reported being less concerned about China’s tensions with Taiwan – the self-ruled island that Beijing claims – and its territorial disputes with neighbouring countries, notably in the resource-rich South China Sea.

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Denny Roy, senior fellow at the East-West Centre in Hawaii, said the issue of Taiwan was not as pressing for ordinary Americans as other issues involving China, such as “the bilateral trade conflict, Chinese cyberattacks, and China’s support for the North Korean regime”.

He said the US policymaking community had also found itself disillusioned with the “nice-guy US approach towards China, which didn’t prevent the disappointing retrogression Americans see under [Chinese President] Xi Jinping”.

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US public sentiment towards China has fluctuated over the years, with more favourable ratings between 2009 and 2012, but opinions dipping to be less positive in the following years, with Xi taking office in 2013.

While Pew found domestic concerns about China’s economy increased during Trump’s presidency from 2017, characterised by harsh rhetoric against Beijing, the overall level of worry among Americans about bilateral economic issues has fallen since 2012.

The think tank also found a persistent partisan gap between how Americans perceive China, with Republicans more likely than Democrats to believe economic tensions were “very serious” problems, and differing most on the severity of US jobs shifting to China and Beijing’s hold on American debt.

But Democrats were significantly more worried about China’s environmental impact than Republicans, the report found.