President Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping meet at the U.S. ambassador’s residence in The Hague on March 24, 2014. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

A key talking point in the Obama Administration’s efforts to convince Congress and the public to support the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP)—a proposed trade and investment treaty between the U.S. and 12 nations in the Asia Pacific region, now being negotiated—is that the U.S. needs to “write the rules” of trade in the Asia Pacific region before China does. Obama warned in a recent interview with the Wall Street Journal that China would be able to “muscle other countries in the region around rules that disadvantage us” if the United States fails to participate in the TPP.

Does this line of argument convince the American public? Do Americans—many of whom simply don’t think much about trade policy—think strategically when they do think about trade? In a recent survey of the pubic, we found some evidence that the answer may be “yes.” Geopolitical arguments in favor of economic integration are not new. Since the end of the Cold War, however, geopolitics have rarely been at the center of the American political debates over trade policy. Instead, the displacement of American workers, labor conditions abroad, human rights, and concerns about the health and safety of imported products are primary.

In partnership with the Teaching, Research, and International Policy (TRIP) Project at the College of William & Mary, we asked 1,000 members of the American public if they supported or opposed the TPP and a number of other foreign policy questions. Our respondents were drawn from the Qualtrics Online Sample using quotas so that the distribution of age, income, and gender among our respondents would approximate that of the general public. These quotas helped ensure that the distribution of labor market status in our sample is similar to that of the public as a whole. Still, as with many online samples, our respondents are more liberal and more educated than the public in general.

Two points are immediately apparent. First, a near majority of Americans either don’t have an opinion or are indifferent to the TPP. This the case despite the significant media coverage garnered by the recent congressional debate over Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) in recent weeks. TPA makes it easier for the president to negotiate trade agreements because it ensures that Congress, under most circumstances, will give any needed implementing legislation an up-or-down vote with no amendments.  Second, those who do have an opinion support the TPP by roughly two to one. Our results are broadly in line with a recent Pew Poll on TPP in particular and a recent Reuters/Ipsos poll on new trade deals in general.

Because we also asked respondents if they would support the use of U.S-led military force in a variety of hypothetical circumstances, including in the event that China invaded Taiwan, we are also able to measure the overlap of views on TPP and hawkish views towards China. The data show that Americans may be sympathetic to Obama’s concern about China’s role in the world.

In the scatter-plot-like graph below, we plot the overlap between support for the TPP and support for the use of military force to counter a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. Each tile represents the overlap of two response options and is shaded according to the proportion of the sample represented by the tile. The relatively darker region on the diagonal of the graph—especially in the upper right—shows that those who support TPP tend to have hawkish views on China.

We omit the “Neither support nor oppose” responses from this graph because we tend to view that response option as akin to “No opinion” or “Don’t know.” Any overlap in “Neither” responses between the two questions is likely the result of a lack of interest or knowledge about foreign affairs in general rather than the result of substantive geopolitical considerations. If you’re interested, you can view the graph without the “Neither” category omitted here.

The graph above plots the overlap between support for the TPP and support for the use of military force to counter a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. Darker regions show overlap among the two opinions. The darker area along the diagonal of the graph—especially in the upper right—suggests a positive correlation between hawkish stances on China and support for the TPP.  

The correlation between views on TPP and on countering China militarily holds even after controlling for a variety of potential confounding factors including ideology, age, income, education, labor market status, and isolationist sentiment. This suggests that the overlap is more than just a common response by those traditionally described as “internationalist.”

Social scientists are rightfully wary of using attitudes in one issue area to predict attitudes in another issue area, especially using data from a single survey like ours. Since we asked all respondents the same survey questions at a single point in time we don’t actually know whether hawkish views on China cause views on TPP, if views on TPP cause hawkish views on China, or if some third factor causes both views on TPP and hawkish views on China. We’d need a more sophisticated research design to figure out how these views are related, but given the low-profile of geopolitical arguments in most recent debates over trade policy, we were surprised by the correlation.

Over the past two decades, scholarship and public discussion of trade policy has centered on anticipated economic consequences. Our new data suggest, however, the public also considers geopolitics when evaluating trade policy, the TPP in particular. As a result, Obama’s geostrategic messaging may be more effective on the public than one might expect, considering the tenor of public discourse on trade from NAFTA onward.

You can read more about our recent survey here.

Ryan Powers is a Ph.D. candidate in political science at University of Wisconsin­–Madison. Jon C.W. Pevehouse is professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin–­Madison. This work is supported by the Carnegie Corporation of New York.