By John Pomfret and Jon Cohen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 25, 2010; A11
Facing high unemployment and a difficult economy, most Americans think the United States will have a smaller role in the world economy in the coming years, and many believe that while the 20th century may have been the "American Century," the 21st century will belong to China.
These results come from a new Washington Post-ABC News poll conducted during a time of significant tension between Washington and Beijing.
"China's on the rise," said Wayne Nunnery, 56, a retired U.S. Air Force employee from Bexar, Tex., who was one of 1,004 randomly selected adults polled. "I don't worry about a Chinese century, but I do wonder how it's going to be for my three sons."
Asked whether this century would be more of an "American Century" or more of a "Chinese Century," Americans divide evenly in terms of the economy (41 percent say Chinese, 40 percent American) and tilt toward the Chinese in terms of world affairs (43 percent say Chinese, 38 percent American). A slim majority say the United States will play a diminished role in the world's economy this century, and nearly half see the country's position shrinking in world affairs more generally.
The results are consistent with recent polls by Gallup, the Pew Research Center and others that have tracked a significant public concern about China's growing prominence on the world stage, as its economy has expanded into what is arguably the second-biggest in the world. In 2000, for example, when the U.S. economy was booming, 65 percent of Americans polled by Gallup said the United States had the world's strongest economy. By last year, the United States and China ran neck-and-neck on the question.
Analysts say the bubbling anti-China sentiment in the United States could constitute a problem for U.S. policy toward that country if the polls also coincide, as they seem to, with growing support for trade protectionism.
Annetta Jordan, another poll participant, said in a follow-up interview that she has witnessed the shifting economic strength firsthand. Jordan, a mother of two from Sandoval, N.M., was working at a cellular telephone plant in the early 1990s as production and hiring were ramped up. By 1992, the plant had 3,200 workers. "Then this whole China thing started and we were very quickly training Chinese to take our jobs," she said. Now the plant has 100 people left.
"We're transferring our wealth to China," she said. "I see that as a very negative thing. When I was younger, a lot of corporations had a lot of pride and patriotism toward America. But corporations have changed. If we in the U.S. go down, that's okay; they'll just move their offices to Beijing."
Carla Hills, the former U.S. trade representative who negotiated China's entry into the World Trade Organization in the late 1990s, said any shift in American public opinion away from China is a concern.
"I really worry about public opinion in both countries getting ahead of where we want to be," she said. "I worry about the public discourse here that 'it's all China's fault,' and the reverse in China that says we're trying to push China around."
In a poll last year in urban areas of China done by the Lowy Institute, Australia's premier think tank, Chinese respondents picked the United States as the No. 1 threat to China's rise by a factor of two over Japan and India, which were tied for second place.
Despite the mutual wariness, most Americans in the Post-ABC News poll say a diminished U.S. role in the world's economy or affairs would be positive or "neither good nor bad."
For Andrew Kohut, the president of the Pew Research Center, increasing public concerns with China remind him of America's reaction to another rising Asian nation three decades ago: Japan.
"This is déjà vu all over again, to quote Yogi," he said. "When a Japanese company bought Rockefeller Center, Americans went nuts. We asked questions about whether Japan was going to become No. 1 and people said yes. These two sentiments are very similar."
Kohut said he doesn't necessarily agree with the answers.
"Anyone who would say that China has eclipsed the United States hasn't been in a Chinese house," he said. But, he added, an "inflated view of what China is today" could have ramifications.
"When Americans are unhappy with themselves, they are unhappy with others, which can translate into protectionist pressure and security anxieties, both of which make it hard to manage U.S.-China relations," said David M. Lampton, a professor of China studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. "People tend to be anxious about big, rapidly changing, nontransparent things -- China is all three."
In recent weeks, U.S. relations with Beijing have taken a nose dive as President Obama met the Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, who is considered a separatist by China, and the administration moved to sell $6.4 billion in weapons to Taiwan. Although both Washington and Beijing have signaled that they don't want the relationship to be damaged, other issues -- most notably trade and a U.S. belief that China's currency needs to rise against the dollar -- could conspire to keep tension high.
Other analysts say the polling may foreshadow something bigger and more complicated than just a potential rise in protectionist sentiment.
"If we face perceptions around the world that China's rise is inexorable and the U.S. is on the decline," said Bonnie S. Glaser, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, "this will hamper U.S. diplomacy and negatively affect U.S. interests."
This explains why, for example, Asian countries near China routinely raise concerns with U.S. officials about America's commitment to Asia.
"All of us want to hedge against China," said a senior official in the region, "but we need to know that the U.S. government will be here for the long haul.
"But even if you do stick around," he said, "there is no doubt that all of us now factor in how China will react to what America wants."
The Post-ABC News poll was conducted Feb. 4-8 by conventional and cellular telephone. The questions reported here were asked of half-samples of respondents; the results have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus five percentage points.
Polling analyst Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.