Last week China threw out a surprise just prior to Vice President Biden's visit - it designated an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the East China Sea and announced that all aircraft flying through the zone is required to give advance notification to Chinese authorities. President Obama reacted by sending two B-52 bombers through the zone without notification. But while in-country, Biden did not go as far as to back Japan's call for China to dismantle the ADIZ.
Before these recent events, polls showed that many Americans downplayed the potential security threat that China poses to the United States, and viewed Chinese strength in mainly economic terms. Yet, Americans rated protecting freedom of navigation as the second highest priority in US-Japan relations, after preventing North Korea from building its nuclear capability.
Majority Support Friendly Engagement with China
According to the 2012 Chicago Council Survey, China’s overall emergence as a world power has not invoked a great sense of threat for Americans. The Chicago Council poll found only four in ten (40%) viewed China’s development as a world power as a critical threat, down significantly from a majority in 2002 (56%), though up slightly since 2004. Most favored pursuing friendly cooperation and engagement (69%) over actively working to limit the growth of China’s power (28%) (see figure below). A Pew survey conducted in May 2012 also found a majority who said it is “very important” for the US to build a strong relationship with China (55%). Pew found even greater support for building a strong relationship with China (84%) in their expert survey of the same year.
But China among Top Mentions for Dangerous Countries
When asked specifically about countries being potentially dangerous for the United States, China is a top mention. A just-released October-November 2013 Pew survey asked which country represents the greatest danger to the United States, and Americans volunteered China and Iran more than any other countries (16% for each). A February 2012 Gallup poll asked what country in the world is the United States’ greatest enemy, and 23 percent named China, though more named Iran (32%). The 2013 Transatlantic Trends survey found that half (49%) of Americans considered China a military threat.
But maybe China would be better characterized as a "frenemy." Nearly half in the 2012 Chicago Council Survey viewed China as mostly a partner (48%) to the United States, an increase from 2004 (41%), but nowhere near the majorities that consider Japan (80%) and South Korea (65%) mostly partners. Pew’s 2013 indicates that most Americans consider China "a serious problem, but not an adversary" (43%, 23% "adversary," 28% "not much of a problem").
Support for US Military Presence in Asia
Preventing North Korea from building its nuclear capability is named as the top strategic priority in relations with Japan and South Korea, according to the 2012 Chicago Council Survey (nearly half said that was a very high priority; results only shown for US-Japan relations in figure below). Protecting freedom of navigation on the sea lanes between the US and East Asia got the second highest rating (a third said it was a very high priority). Limiting the rise of China's power was among the least most urgent priorities.
To hedge against military threats in East Asia, most Americans perceive clear dividends from having a US troop presence in the region. According to the 2012 Chicago Council Survey, six in ten (59%) believed that the American presence increases stability in the region. A slight majority (54%) also supported shifting military and diplomatic resources away from the Middle East and Europe toward Asia, but this endorsement for the “pivot” was rather soft (9% strongly, 45% somewhat).
Given the events of the past weeks regarding China and the ADIZ, it's likely that Americans who are following the situation are even more supportive of the current US presence in Asia. The rebalance to Asia might also find broader appeal.