As trade tensions rise, fewer Americans see China favorably, survey shows

by Jesse Johnson

Staff Writer

Trade disputes — not China’s surging military strength — are the top concern of Americans, a comprehensive annual survey released Wednesday on the public image of China in the United States has shown.

The survey, conducted by the Pew Research Center, comes as Washington and Beijing have slapped tariffs on goods from their respective countries, prompting the trade disputes to dominate relations between the world’s two biggest economies.

Although tensions over trade are hardly new, the poll indicates that they have intensified under the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump, giving rise to less positive American attitudes toward China over the past year. Overall, 38 percent of Americans have a favorable opinion of China, down slightly from 44 percent in 2017, according to the survey.

In a showdown between concerns over China’s economic strength and its growing military might, the poll found that most Americans chose the former.

Nearly 6-in-10 Americans — 58 percent — believe China’s economic power is the greater threat, an increase of six percentage points from last year. Meanwhile, the share of the public identifying China’s military power as the bigger worry declined seven points since 2017.

Under President Xi Jinping, China has continued to implement a vast military modernization program as part of what the Pentagon has called “a commitment to developing military power commensurate with that of a great power.”

And while concerns about China’s military had been on the rise in recent years — especially as it punched further into the Western Pacific in what experts have said is a bid to displace the United States as the dominant power in Asia — the balance of opinion on this question now echoes that of 2012, when Pew first asked this question, it said.

In a result that could have implications for U.S. ally Japan and increasingly isolated Taiwan, the survey also showed that territorial disputes between China and its neighbors and growing tensions between China and Taiwan generate fewer concerns than all other issues tested.

Tokyo and Beijing are engaged in a dispute over the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands, known in China as the Diaoyu. As for China-Taiwan relations, Beijing has ramped up provocative military exercises near the self-ruled island, while also whittling away its remaining few diplomatic allies.

Beyond trade, other economic issues also featured prominently in the list of concerns Americans have about China. Roughly half or more of those polled say the large amount of U.S. debt held by China, the loss of U.S. jobs to China and the trade deficit with the country are very serious problems.

China is the biggest holder of U.S. debt — with some $1.18 trillion — and Washington posted a $376 billion deficit in goods with Beijing in 2017.

The survey also noted that attitudes toward China have fluctuated to some extent in recent years, becoming more negative during the 2012 U.S. election cycle, but more positive in 2017, before this year’s decline.

In fact, worries about job losses, debt and the trade deficit are actually less common today than in 2012, when the economic mood in the U.S. was generally more negative, the poll showed.

Beyond economic worries, Americans are also concerned about a number of other issues, including the threat of Chinese cyberattacks, the country’s impact on the global environment and its human rights record.

Overall, the poll found that many of these specific concerns about China have remained stable over the past year.

The survey, which was conducted from May 14 to June 15, had a sample size of 1,500 and a margin of error of 2.9 percentage points.