A revealing map of how the world views China vs. the U.S.

July 22, 2013

Blue countries view the U.S. more favorably than they do China; red countries are the reverse. Data from Pew Global Attitudes. (Max Fisher/The Washington Post)

A new Pew survey of people in 39 countries from around the world finds that people tend to have a more favorable view of the United States than they do of China, but with wide variations across regions and countries. It's a compelling dataset, a sign of shifting global attitudes toward two of the world's most powerful countries and a glimpse into the complex world of public opinion toward China and the United States.

The Post's William Wan wrote up some of the major take-aways from the broad study. Above, I've plotted out the results from one of the more interesting datasets: favorability. Pew asked people in all 39 countries if they had a favorable or unfavorable view of the United States and of China. (Respondents could call both countries favorable or both unfavorable; it's not mutually exclusive.) Countries where people are more likely to view the United States favorably are marked in blue, and the deeper the blue the more they're skewed toward the United States. Light blue means that U.S. favorability exceeded China favorability by 6 to 20 percent, medium blue means a 21 to 35 percent gap, and dark blue represents countries where the U.S. favorability rating exceeds China's by more than 35 percent. Countries where people are more likely to view China favorably are marked in shades of red, along the same scale. Respondents in purple countries were about equally likely to view the United States and China favorably.

Before we dive in, a few caveats on the data. "Favorability" is a vague metric. While individual respondents will presumably apply the favorable/unfavorable judgment equally to the United States and China, perceptions of what constitutes favorability could change from person to person, country to country, region to region.

Also, while this visualization indicates the discrepancy between U.S. and China favorability ratings, it does not tell you the raw numbers. For example, both Turkey and Nigeria are shaded light red to indicate a slight preference for China, but it would be a mistake to call their views similar: Nigerians actually expressed high favorability ratings for both the United States and China, while Turks expressed very low ratings for both. Still, the numbers are a nice way to get at comparative views at a time when that increasingly matters.

Here are a few insights from the data:

America most popular with Europeans, Africans, Asian allies

Who knows whether alliances breed pro-American attitudes or the other way around -- it's probably both -- but the United States remains much more popular with its many allies from Europe to Asia. The most strongly U.S.-leaning country, according to the data, is Japan, followed by, in this order: Italy, Israel, the Philippines and South Korea. All five are military allies.

The fact that America is popular with its allies seems like a no-brainer, but the flip side of that is important: China doesn't enjoy the same benefit with its allies because it doesn't really have any close, long-term allies aside from North Korea. That appears to hurt it in global popular opinion, which can't be good for its foreign policy.

China does best (or America does worst) in Muslim countries

Most of the countries that report a higher favorability for China are Muslim-majority. This appears to be due in part to low approval for the United States, particularly in the Arab Middle East. In some cases, it's also about positive views toward China, which scores a remarkably high 81 percent favorability in both Malaysia and Pakistan. But in others, such as Turkey and Jordan, China scores poorly, just not as poorly as the United States. Broadly, these numbers seem driven less by a love of China than a dislike of America, something for U.S. policymakers to keep in mind.

The most interesting case here is Southeast Asia

It's easy to exaggerate any competition for global influence between the United States and China; Beijing simply doesn't see itself as a world leader or power in the same way that Washington does. But the diplomatic chess match is more real in Southeast Asia, an increasingly important and resource-rich region that has some historical cause for skepticism of both Chinese and American meddling. If I were in charge of long-term foreign policy planning for either China or the United States, this is the region where I'd see the most important implications from the Pew study, both because of its importance and because it seems so unusually uncommitted.

In diplomatic terms, China has largely failed to establish greater influence here, often over-playing its hand in a way that Southeast Asian neighbors see as bullying or threatening and a cause for greater reliance on U.S. protection. So it's interesting to see that this is and is not reflected in the Pew data. The Philippines, a close U.S. military ally and its only former colony, appears as pro-American as ever. But not Malaysia, which, despite an ongoing territorial dispute with China, reports a sky-high 81 percent favorability rating for China.

China also appears to have a strong following in Indonesia, which has the world's largest Muslim population but is also reportedly proud of its role in President Obama's childhood. Indonesians generally like both the United States and China, at 61 and 70 percent favorability, respectively, but China's lead may be a cause for some concern in the State Department.

The number that most jumped out at me is actually Australia. A U.S. military ally and fellow member of the Anglosphere, it nonetheless reports a pretty good 66 percent favorability for the United States and similarly positive 58 percent for China. This actually makes sense: China is Australia's largest trading partner, a relationship that's only getting more important as Chinese demand for Australian resources rises.

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd is a famous Sinophile: He speaks Chinese, advocates for a closer political and economic relationship with China and has even written policy articles arguing that the United States and China should cooperate more in Asia. This doesn't mean that Australia is about to abandon the West to bandwagon with China. But it does seem to signal that, should relations between China and the United States deteriorate, Australia will not necessarily want to pick sides if that means alienating Beijing.

Africa loves both, with a slight preference for the U.S.

We already knew that President Obama enjoys extremely high approval ratings in sub-Saharan Africa, but it turns out that so do the United States and China. Pew's aggregate data show the United States with a 77 percent approval rating in surveyed sub-Saharan countries and China with 72 percent. The United States leads everywhere except Nigeria, which leans slightly for China (perhaps because of the unpopularity of Western oil companies there), and is comparatively strongest in South Africa.

China has been increasingly investing in Africa, sending large numbers of Chinese workers and factory bosses and lots of money for development and resource projects. Africans have expressed positive views of these projects, but they sometimes lead to backlashes, as in Zambia, where a recent presidential election was seen in part as a repudiation of Chinese investment.

Echoes of the Cold War, but not a new one, in Latin America

As Edward Snowden has reminded us, views toward the United States are complicated in Latin America, where American influence is still seen in some countries as a continuation of Cold War-era meddling. That trend is borne out in these data as well; the United States is viewed quite positively in some countries and less so in others, particularly those where Cold War American misdeeds are still raw. Negative views are not nearly as pronounced here as they are in the Middle East -- more than 50 percent approve of the United States in all but Argentina -- but it's not Europe, either.

Still, it would be a mistake to see this as a continuation of the Cold War battle for influence; there's no indication that China is courting opinion or attempting to shape politics with even a small fraction of the energy of the Soviet Union. It is possible that China could be seen as a sort of alternative to the United States, as appears to be the case in Pakistan; Latin American views of China tend to go up as views of the United States go down.

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Max Fisher | July 19, 2013