China’s economic rise over the past decades has been meteoric, during which time the volume of rhetoric about the “China threat” has also grown at historic rates. In the early 1990s the Pentagon needed a new superpower rival to justify Cold War-sized defense budgets. But displays of American military power in the first Gulf War and the 1995-96 crisis in the Taiwan Strait also prompted China to develop a military strategy designed to keep American forces out of its neighborhood. Now, with counterterrorism missions in Iraq and Afghanistan down from their peak and China’s military posture maturing significantly, the U.S. military has been devoting more time and resources to figuring out ways to counter China’s new strategy.
Beyond the military, political hawks have been quick to draw attention to the China threat. During last weekend’s Shangri La Dialogue in Singapore, Senator John McCain (R-AZ) said that China has a choice between peaceful cooperation and engaging in a “zero-sum game for regional power and influence.” Even academics have gotten in on the game, with many arguing that China’s rise will not be peaceful.
Though China’s saber rattling in East Asia and the South China Sea hasn’t made a big splash in the 2016 presidential campaign so far, the question of how the United States should respond to China’s rising military and economic power is one of the most important foreign policy challenges the next president will face.
Both candidates have staked out aggressive positions on China. Trump has promised to impose steep tariffs on Chinese imports, suggested that South Korea and Japan should acquire nuclear weapons, and has called for a strong military presence in Asia to discourage “Chinese adventurism.” Clinton, for her part, was a lead architect of the “pivot to Asia” as Secretary of State, redirecting U.S. military and diplomatic efforts from the Middle East to Asia to confront China’s rise.
A close look at public opinion, however, reveals that although complex, the American public’s attitudes towards China are more sanguine than those of its fearful leaders.
To be sure, most Americans have always harbored concerns about the Communist nation and its intentions, and during difficult times Americans worry about the challenge China poses to their economic fortunes. But despite China’s aggressive campaign to modernize its military, and despite two decades of one-sided debate about the China threat, most Americans correctly continue to identify the United States as the stronger military power, and fewer than half view China’s military power as a serious threat (even fewer rate it a “critical threat.”)
Moreover, the prolonged fear mongering has failed to move the needle when it comes to how Americans feel about China. Gallup polls show a slight increase in China’s favorability rating among Americans between 1990 and 2016. And in 2014 the Chicago Council on Global Affairs found that just 48% of the public views China as primarily a rival and 49% see it primarily as a partner.
Most importantly, though, Americans overwhelming support a cooperative approach to dealing with China rather than a confrontational one. Sixty-seven percent responded to the 2014 CCGA poll that the best way to handle the rise of Chinese power is to “undertake friendly cooperation and engagement,” compared to 29% who said the United States should “actively work to limit the growth of China’s power.” And when it comes to the prospect of military conflict with China the public is truly not interested. Just 26% believe the United States should send troops to help if China invades Taiwan.
These figures provide fair warning to the next president to think twice about how to deal with China. An aggressive military posture like the one in place today (and promoted by both candidates) not only runs contrary to public preferences, it also increases the prospects for direct conflict between the United States and China.