There is perhaps no more important bilateral relationship in the world today than the one between the United States and China—the world’s two most important players in terms of economics and security. As a new US administration led by President-elect Donald Trump prepares to take office, this relationship will help to set the tone for the foreign policy of both countries over the next four years.
The incoming US administration has already signaled it intends to take a tough line when it comes to its perceptions of unfair trade practices of China, increasing stress on an already strained relationship. The Obama administration’s inability to realize the rebalance to Asia—a central foreign policy tenet of his administration—now lacks a credible economic component given that the passage of the Trans-Pacific Partnership seems doomed. This means that the focus of the rebalance is on security. This imbalanced rebalance, combined with hawkish statements from Trump advisors, adds weight to China’s suspicion that the United States is attempting to contain Chinese influence in the region and around the world.
Changes in public opinion—or the lack thereof—will offer one important measure by which to judge where the relationship is headed. In order to benchmark public opinion in both countries at the outset of such an important transition, the Council on Global Affairs, in partnership with Dataway Horizon, conducted surveys in both the US and China examining the same issues and questions from both sides of the bilateral relationship.
The results of this study show that both American and Chinese publics want to see their country pursue an active role in world affairs and think that a shared leadership role is the appropriate way forward. While both publics see the benefits to their nations from globalization, their actual economic experiences color their expectations for future growth. While Chinese see a clear upward economic trajectory from their parents’ quality of life to their own and to their children’s’ future, Americans are more pessimistic. These personal views among Americans may lead some to view international trade as a zero sum transaction where gains made by the Chinese come at the expense to Americans.
In the same way, the Chinese may view security issues in a similar zero sum manner, perhaps viewing American influence in the region—through alliances and its overseas presence—as an obstacle to Chinese influence in the region. Unfortunately, what has become a lopsided rebalance during the Obama administration with more focus on security more than on trade has likely contributed to this perception.
Finally, the results suggest significant distrust between American and Chinese publics, as they both tend to believe the other country is working to undermine the influence of the other. This latter measure will be an important marker to watch going forward, as growing distrust may reflect an erosion of bilateral relations—already a concern for both publics.
For full results, read the latest report, Views from the G2: Public Opinion in the US and China.