Nearly 9 in 10 U.S. adults see China as a “competitor” or an “enemy” rather than a “partner,” a new survey has found, shedding light on shifting American views of the Asian behemoth.
The Pew Research Center survey released Thursday — the first focusing on Sino-American relations under U.S. President Joe Biden — comes as the president crafts his administration’s approach to Beijing after his predecessor, Donald Trump, took a sledgehammer to the relationship, prompting predictions of a “new Cold War.”
The survey’s release also came after U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Wednesday said in his first major foreign policy speech as Washington’s top diplomat that managing the relationship with China was “the biggest geopolitical test of the 21st century.”
According to the survey, a majority of Americans, at 55%, describe China as a competitor, while 34% view the country as an enemy. Just 9% sees it as a partner — a view that could impact endeavors that require cooperation such as reining in climate change.
Many in the U.S. also back Washington taking a tougher approach to bilateral ties, whether by promoting human rights in China, getting tougher on Beijing economically or limiting the number of Chinese students studying abroad in the U.S., the survey found.
More broadly, 48% believe limiting China’s global power and influence should be a top foreign policy priority for the United States, up from 32% in 2018.
“The Chinese people as individuals are no different than other people, but their government is a totalitarian communist regime bent on conquering its neighbors and land-grabbing, as shown by their takeover of Hong Kong,” an unidentified 52-year-old male respondent was quoted as saying.
But as Biden seeks to navigate the increasingly tumultuous relationship, just 53% of Americans say they have confidence in him to deal effectively with China — the lowest among the six foreign policy issues asked about in the survey.
Republicans and Democrats were “worlds apart” on this issue, the survey found, with 83% of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents voicing confidence in Biden to deal effectively with China, compared with just 19% of Republicans and Republican leaners.
Still, 67% of all respondents have confidence in Biden to improve relationships with allies, and around 6 in 10 say they think he will be able to deal effectively with the threat of terrorism and global climate change, as well as to make good decisions about the use of military force and international trade, the survey found.
As for Chinese leader Xi Jinping, the survey found that few Americans have confidence in him. Just 15% believe Xi would do the right thing regarding world affairs — compared to 60% for Biden — whereas 82% do not, including 43% who have no confidence in Xi at all.
Since taking office, Biden has toned down the fiery rhetoric exuded by Trump against China, but has largely left in place many of the actions taken by his predecessor. This has included Trump’s tariffs, the act of labeling China’s crackdown on Uyghur Muslims in the Xinjiang region a “genocide,” maintaining a ramped-up military posture in the South China Sea and continuing to lambaste Beijing’s policies toward Taiwan and Hong Kong.
Biden has also built on measures that put technology at the heart of U.S. strategy in Asia that, explicitly or not, put China in its crosshairs.
Indeed, many of these issues — including Beijing’s human rights record, cyberattacks, U.S. job losses to China, and the Asian nation’s growing technological and military power — were cited in the Pew survey as “major problems” for the bilateral relationship.
This year’s report, which surveyed 2,596 U.S. adults from Feb. 1 to 7, also examined volunteered responses from Americans who were asked to describe, in their own words, the first things that come to mind when they think about China.
Overall, it found that 20% mentioned human rights, 19% noted the economy and 17% had their mind go to the political system. Smaller numbers of people mentioned the perceived threat that China poses, at 13%, or the U.S.-China relationship, at 12%. Americans were also much more likely to use generally negative adjectives rather than positive ones when describing China, at 12% versus 4%.
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