The Trump administration’s willingness to spark a trade war with China might well be its most ambitious foreign policy move. But what does it mean for U.S. policy if a majority of Americans don’t agree that China is such a worrying threat? And what happens if they don’t think a trade war is worth the cost?
Newly released polling data from the Chicago Council on Global Affairs raises these questions — and more. The data suggest that although many Americans think the rise of China is an important concern, it ranks lower than many other global problems.
According to the survey, 39 percent of the country views China’s growing power as a “critical threat” to Americans. That ranked it only eighth among 12 potential threats listed and placed China well behind the perceived threats from international terrorism (66 percent), North Korea’s nuclear program (59 percent) and Iran’s nuclear program (52 percent).
It’s also considerably lower than when the same question was asked during the 1990s, when more than half of those polled listed China as a critical threat. That broadly tracks with a recent poll from the Pew Research Center that found concern about U.S.-China economic issues had decreased since 2012.
And while Trump may believe that “trade wars are good and easy to win,” many Americans appear to have serious doubts about that.
A slightly larger percentage of respondents said that the possibility of a trade war with China was more of a critical threat than the rise of China overall — 42 percent compared with 39. Democrats felt far stronger than Republicans on this, with 54 percent of the former saying it was a critical threat compared to 28 percent of the latter.
Yet 72 percent said they were either very or somewhat concerned that such a trade war would hurt their own areas. Again there was a considerable partisan divide: Only 56 percent of Republicans felt this way, compared with 83 percent of Democrats.
Bonnie Glaser, the director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said that although she is skeptical about polling on complicated foreign issues, it’s logical that Americans would grow concerned about Trump’s China policy once the effects of tariffs become more keenly felt. Glaser noted that while many Americans have not yet felt much impact from the tariffs, that probably will change next year.
“Once consumer prices start to rise, Americans will start to ask why. And the Trump administration will have to have a persuasive case that the short-term pain is worth the longer-term gain, which will come only if the Chinese make major concessions,” Glaser said.
More broadly, the poll found Americans divided in their views on China, with 49 percent saying China is mostly a rival compared to 50 percent who say it’s mostly a partner. That’s a long-standing divide, seen in both the Chicago Council’s polling on China and Pew’s surveys of U.S. views of China.
The two countries are perceived to have different kinds of influence. Military strength is Washington’s greatest means of influencing other countries, Americans told the Chicago Council, while Beijing is more influential in terms of economic power and technology and innovation. Culture, politics and economic aid were perceived to have relatively little power.
Despite Americans’ perceptions of the influence of U.S. military strength, however, there is little support for using military force against China. Even if China were to engage in a military conflict over disputed islands in its region, 56 percent said they would oppose the use of U.S. troops. A slightly larger majority, 61 percent, opposed the use of U.S. troops if China invaded Taiwan.
Americans are not always reticent to send in the military: In another recent Chicago Council poll, majorities of Americans said that U.S. troops should be used if North Korea attacked South Korea or Japan. In the case of China, many Americans seem unsure whether the threat posed to the United States itself is actually worth the risk.
The Chicago Council’s analysis was based on data from an online research panel conducted by GfK Custom Research between July 12 and July 31, and 2,046 adults living in the 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia were surveyed, with a margin of error of plus or minus 2.4 percentage points. The GfK Knowledge Panel was recruited through random sampling methods.