Global attitudes reflect shifting U.S.-China power balance, survey concludes

People around the globe believe that China will inevitably replace the United States as the world’s leading superpower, but that doesn’t mean they like the prospect, according to a new study on global attitudes.

The survey that the Pew Research Center conducted in 39 countries confirms much of the conventional wisdom in Washington about the shifting balance of power between the United States and China.

Mutual tensions are rising, with Americans’ favorable opinions of China dropping from 51 percent two years ago to 37 percent now and a similar drop among Chinese — from 58 percent to 40 percent — with respect to the United States.

China’s economic might is perceived as rising and the United States’ as declining, and although many countries still see the United States as the top economic power, many believe that it is only a matter of time before China supplants it.

Despite the shifting attitudes, however, the United States generally enjoys a better image abroad. On the question of which country they view as a partner, more nations had a majority naming the United States rather than China.

The survey on global attitudes was the largest that Pew has conducted since 2007.

China was widely admired by respondents — especially in Africa and Latin America — for its scientific and technological advances, according to the survey, but Chinese ideas and popular culture were less well-received. The positive views of China in Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa reflect heavy Chinese investment in those regions in recent decades.

Meanwhile, several of China’s nearest neighbors, including the Philippines, South Korea and Japan, view their U.S. ties as far more important than their relationship with China — a feeling fostered by their increasingly hostile territorial disputes with China.

Outright anti-China sentiment was mostly limited to respondents in Germany, Italy, Israel and Japan.

Hostile attitudes were especially notable in Japan, where they have reached a new watermark after heated nationalist rhetoric in recent years in China and Japan. Only 5 percent of respondents in Japan expressed a positive view of China, and 93 percent had a negative view.

Both U.S. and Chinese military capabilities worry other countries. The United States’ drone program, however, proved especially unpopular in the poll, with a majority of respondents in 31 of the 39 countries surveyed disapproving of U.S. airstrikes on extremists. According to the report, attacks by unmanned U.S. aircraft drew majority support in only three countries: Israel, Kenya and the United States.

Meanwhile, President Obama remains popular in many parts of the world, especially Europe, Africa and some countries in Asia, but his overall ratings have slipped since 2009, along with confidence in him and approval of his policies, the survey found. He enjoys the least confidence among people in the Middle East, with about 30 percent or fewer in most countries in the region saying that “they trust Obama to do the right thing in global affairs.”

With regard to personal freedoms and human rights, however, the United States did much better overall than China — although the survey was conducted from March to May, before recent disclosures about the scope of U.S. government surveillance, including the collection of far-reaching data on phone calls and e-mails.

Notably, the only country surveyed where positive views of the U.S. government’s record on personal freedoms had declined was the United States.

William Wan is The Post’s China correspondent based in Beijing. He served previously as a religion reporter and diplomatic correspondent.
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