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China, US Vie for World Approval

Aug 27, 2013

The US-China rivalry is today’s defining geostrategic competition. Washington is currently the biggest kid on the block, and Beijing is the strapping new boy who just moved into the neighborhood. A rivalry was almost inevitable. And there’s growing evidence that the other kids on the street expect that one day there will be a new king of the hill.

Publics around the world see the global balance of power shifting, according to the latest Pew Research Center survey. Most recognize China’s rising economic power. Many think Beijing will eventually supplant Washington as the world’s dominant superpower.

However, public appreciation of China’s centrality on the world stage has not translated into great affection. China’s favorability is dropping in many nations. Globally, people are more likely to consider the US a partner to their country than see China in this way. America is also seen as somewhat more willing than China to consider other countries’ interests when making US foreign policy. And US respect for individual liberty is a defining, positive element of America’s image, while Beijing’s abuse of human rights hurts China’s brand.

The survey was conducted in March.

As its influence grows, China is learning that being a superpower also alienates people. Beijing’s growing military strength is viewed with trepidation in the Asian region.

Since the 2008 financial crisis, perceptions about the economic balance of power in the world have been shifting. The median percentage naming the US as the world’s leading economic power has declined from 47 to 41 percent, comparing results in the 20 nations surveyed by the Pew Research Center in 2008 and 2013. At the same time, the median percentage placing China in the top spot has risen from 20 to 34 percent, although the US economy is still larger than that of China and per capita income is higher.

This trend has been especially apparent among some of America’s closest allies in Western Europe: 53 percent in Britain say China is already the leading economy, while 33 percent name the US; 59 percent of Germans also say China occupies the top position, while 19 percent think the US is the global economic leader and14 percent say it’s the EU.

In contrast, the US is still generally seen as the world’s leading economy in Latin America, Africa and in much of China’s Asian backyard: 67 percent in Japan and the Philippines, and 61 percent in South Korea, name the US as the economic powerhouse, while small minorities name China.

However, even in many countries where America is still seen as the top dog, most believe China will someday supplant Uncle Sam. In 23 of 39 nations, majorities or pluralities say China either already has replaced or eventually will replace the US as the world’s superpower. This view is more common now than it was in 2008, when Pew Research first asked this question.

In the eyes of many, America’s time on top is fading. Today, majorities or pluralities in only six countries state that China will never replace the US. But in Europe the prevailing view is that China will ultimately eclipse the US. The same expectation is held by the majority or plurality in five of seven Latin American nations polled.

Two-thirds of the Chinese state that their country either already has or someday will replace the US. Meanwhile, Americans are losing faith in their own supremacy: 47 percent say China has or will replace the US, and the same number say this will never happen. American opinion has shifted significantly since 2008, when 36 percent said China would become the top global power and 54 percent said it would never replace the US.

Not clear from the survey data is whether people are pleased or displeased with China’s emergence as a leading power. A median of 50 percent currently have a favorable view of China in the 38 nations surveyed outside China.

Overall, the US enjoys a stronger global image than China. Across the nations surveyed, a median of 63 percent express a favorable opinion of the US, compared with 50 percent for China. Young people around the world are much more likely than their elders to hold positive views of both countries.

In 28 of 38 nations surveyed, half or more of those questioned express a favorable opinion of the US. Europeans generally give the US high ratings, especially in Italy, where 76 percent have a positive view, up from 53 percent in 2007. In both France and Germany, ratings for the US have declined somewhat since 2009, the first year of Barack Obama’s presidency. In comparison, Chinese attitudes toward the United States have declined over the past three years: 40 percent expressed a favorable opinion of the US compared with 58 percent in 2010.

The US is seen more favorably than China in every region of the world except the Middle East. Moreover, favorability toward China has fallen in 10 of 19 countries since 2011, including by 14 percentage points in the United States, 11 points in Britain and 9 in France. This is likely the result of unease about China as a commercial competitor, European frustration with Chinese unilateralism in foreign affairs, and American concern about the US trade deficit with China and Beijing’s holding of American debt. Over that same period, favorability of China is also down 15 points in the Palestinian territories, 12 points in Egypt and 11 in Israel, where frustration with Chinese unilateralism in international affairs may have a particularly corrosive effect.

The strongest anti-China sentiment is found in Japan, where 93 percent see the People’s Republic in a negative light. Large majorities in Italy (62 percent) and Israel (60 percent) also hold negative views of China. The rise in anti-China sentiment in Germany is striking, now 64 percent compared with 33 percent in 2006. And such unfavorable views exist despite Germany’s success exporting to China.

Perception of how Beijing and Washington treat the personal freedoms of their own people appears to be a strong driver of global attitudes toward the two countries.
A median of 70 percent of the publics surveyed say that the United States respects the personal freedoms of its people. Just 36 percent think the government of China safeguards the rights of its people. The correlation between national favorability and respect for freedom is strong in Europe and helps explain Beijing’s declining reputation there. The contribution America’s human rights reputation makes to its global image only underscores how much the US may lose from recent revelations of US surveillance of phone and email traffic.

China’s image problem is compounded by its rising military might and territorial disputes with its neighbors in northeast Asia: 96 percent of Japanese and 91 percent of South Koreans state that Beijing’s military power is a bad thing.

In the years ahead, global publics see a change coming in the world balance of power: China is on the upswing and the United States is waning. Yet various measures suggest that people still look more favorably on the United States, are more likely to see it as a partner, prefer its soft power and applaud safeguarding of human rights. All of which suggests that what publics see as inevitable may not necessarily be seen as preferable.

Bruce Stokes is director of global economic attitudes at the Pew Research Center. The Whitney and Betty MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies at Yale.

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