Trump’s adversarial view of China is out of line with the American public

Chinese President Xi Jinping attends the World Economic Forum (WEF) annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland January 17, 2017. REUTERS/Ruben Sprich

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The Trump administration enters office with an undisguised antipathy towards China. It starts with Donald Trump himself and extends to many of the individuals he has already named for key positions. Their focus is on the U.S.-China bilateral economic relationship and the belief that China is the reason for the loss of manufacturing jobs in the United States over a long period of time. Trump himself has threatened to slap a 45 percent tariff on Chinese goods.

But he is curiously out of step with the American public when it comes to China. On January 12, the Pew Research Center released results of a survey that show U.S. public attitudes are not so harsh. Only half of respondents (52 percent) believe that China’s power and influence is a “global threat,” ranking it only sixth in a list of the possibilities offered. ISIS, cyberattacks, North Korea’s nuclear program, Russia, and climate change all outrank China. (Sixty-four percent of the public regards North Korea’s nuclear program as a major threat, 12 points ahead of China.)

Breaking respondents down by party, 58 percent of Republicans or Republican-leaning respondents see China as a “major threat” while only 48 percent of Democrats or Democratic-leaning ones do. That is, four in 10 Republicans do not see China as a major threat. (In contrast, Democrats and Republicans do not differ appreciably on the threat posed by North Korea.)

The level of concern about China goes down when the question is asked a different way. If the choice is between seeing China as an adversary, a serious problem, or not a problem, only 22 percent of respondents believe it is an adversary, 43 percent say it is a serious problem, and 31 percent think it is not a problem.

Of respondents who identify as conservative or moderate, only 18 percent see China as America’s adversary, 42 percent believe it is a serious problem, and 35 percent think it is not a problem. The distribution is virtually the same for liberals.

No doubt, there are some Americans who see China in the same dire terms conveyed by Mr. Trump and his advisers. But this new Pew poll shows that they are a decided minority of the American public. No doubt, the United States has serious points of friction with China, but collectively these issues do not coalesce into across-the-board hostility. If the Trump administration were to trigger a serious deterioration in U.S.-China relations, the likely public reaction thus would not be to cheer on the president, but rather to ask: “Is this really necessary?”