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Americans yawn at ‘China threat’ narrative

While recent years have seen a dramatic escalation in tension between the Chinese and American governments, a new survey by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs reveals that the increasingly strong “China threat” narrative among U.S. policymakers does not appear to have had a significant impact on how the American public views China.

According to the investigation’s findings, only four in 10 Americans (38 percent) “see the development of China as a world power as a critical threat, [a finding] in line with how Americans have felt about China’s development since 2004.”

Of particular interest is the finding that partisan gaps in perception appear to have narrowed since June 2019, during the height of trade war escalations. According to the report:

Additionally, the partisan gap that emerged in 2019 has quickly snapped shut. Last year, a majority of Republicans (54 percent) named China’s rise as a critical threat, while only minorities of Democrats (36 percent) and Independents (40 percent) said the same. Today, there is little difference among these partisan groups, with similarly-sized minorities of Republicans (41 percent), Democrats (37 percent), and Independents (37 percent) labeling China’s development a critical threat.

The Council attributes this change in perception to the signing of the first phase of the trade deal, the survey’s timing, and the continuation of the view that Russia and Iran pose larger risks:

One possible cause is the signing of the Phase 1 trade agreement between the US and China on January 15. In the days leading up to that signing, during which the survey was fielded, news coverage of the deal was generally positive; criticisms came following the signing and release of the agreement’s text. Moreover, relatively few Americans see China as posing the greatest threat to US security. In the Council’s latest survey, only 16 percent of Americans choose China in a list of potential threats to the US. That puts it third in line behind Russia (28 percent) and Iran (33 percent), and is similar to public views from February 2019, when 18 percent named China the greatest threat to US security.

The Council goes on to suggest that if economic rather than security reasons were indeed the primary cause for the recent spike in Republican concerns, then “the mending of US-China trade relations will serve to keep public concerns at a relatively low level.”

What does this mean for the 2020 election?

SupChina has been tracking the China positions of 2020 Democratic candidates for the U.S. presidency, and in general, candidates have refused to go into specifics about how they would handle the relationship with China.

This result is remarkable similarity in the stated positions of many candidates. Andrew Yang, for example, takes extremely different positions on globalization than Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, but all three candidates have refused to take tariffs off the table when it comes to pressuring China. Joe Biden, still the frontrunner in most early-state primary polls, can’t seem to make up his mind about how to approach China.

China appears to be a rare issue in American politics that remains unpolarized. Politicians of all stripes in Washington, D.C., continue to think up new ways to be “tough on China,” while voters largely say “meh” and look to other issues. If a Democrat wins the presidency in November, don’t expect the trajectory of U.S.-China relations to turn on a dime.

—Alex Smith and Lucas Niewenhuis

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Alex Smith

Alex Smith is a writer and researcher from Aotearoa, New Zealand. She has a Master of Arts in East Asian Regional Studies from Columbia University. Prior to moving to New York, she worked as an analyst at the New Zealand Treasury, where she focused on justice sector policy and the annual budget.

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