You are on page 1of 24

This article was downloaded by: [University of Groningen]

On: 12 March 2011

Access details: Access Details: [subscription number 907173570]
Publisher Routledge
Informa Ltd Registered in England and Wales Registered Number: 1072954 Registered office: Mortimer House, 37-
41 Mortimer Street, London W1T 3JH, UK

Journal of Contemporary China

Publication details, including instructions for authors and subscription information:

Americans and the Rise of China as a World Power

Tao Xie; Benjamin I. Page

Online publication date: 28 April 2010

To cite this Article Xie, Tao and Page, Benjamin I.(2010) 'Americans and the Rise of China as a World Power', Journal of
Contemporary China, 19: 65, 479 — 501
To link to this Article: DOI: 10.1080/10670561003666095


Full terms and conditions of use:

This article may be used for research, teaching and private study purposes. Any substantial or
systematic reproduction, re-distribution, re-selling, loan or sub-licensing, systematic supply or
distribution in any form to anyone is expressly forbidden.

The publisher does not give any warranty express or implied or make any representation that the contents
will be complete or accurate or up to date. The accuracy of any instructions, formulae and drug doses
should be independently verified with primary sources. The publisher shall not be liable for any loss,
actions, claims, proceedings, demand or costs or damages whatsoever or howsoever caused arising directly
or indirectly in connection with or arising out of the use of this material.
Journal of Contemporary China (2010), 19(65), June, 479–501

Americans and the Rise of China

as a World Power

The rapid ascendency of China has attracted considerable attention from American scholars,
policymakers, and media. Yet what does the American public think about the rise of China as a
world power? In this paper we use survey data collected by the Chicago Council on Global
Affairs and other organizations to explore the nature and causes of Americans’ views. It turns out
Downloaded By: [University of Groningen] At: 10:17 12 March 2011

that most Americans are well aware of the rise of China. Some are apprehensive about that rise,
chiefly for national security (rather than economic) reasons, and many favor a degree of off-shore
‘balancing’ of the sort that realists recommend. But few Americans want to actively work to limit
the rise of China. Very few favor the use of troops to defend Taiwan. Very few favor a
nuclear-armed Japan. Large majorities of Americans take stands more akin to those of neo-
liberals than realist theorists, favoring cooperation and peaceful engagement with China.

1. Introduction
China has risen to become a major world economic power with amazing rapidity.
It started in 1949 as an impoverished, peasant-based agricultural economy with
limited natural resources but with an enormous population of about 600 million.
In just about 60 years, China’s real GDP has probably multiplied by more than 37
times (see Figure 1). During the same period, the United States—already the world’s
largest economy in the early 1870s—merely sextupled its GDP.1 Depending on data

* Tao Xie is associate professor at the School of English and International Studies, Beijing Foreign Studies
University. Benjamin I. Page is the Gordon Scott Fulcher Professor of Decision-Making at the Department of Political
Science, Northwestern University. An earlier version of this paper was presented at the annual meeting of the
Midwest Political Science Association in Chicago, 2–5 April 2009. For comments and suggestions, we are grateful to
Victor Marin, Jon Caverley, Hendrik Spruyt, Stacy Wagner, and two anonymous reviewers. The Chicago Council on
Global Affairs generously made the data available to the authors but should not be held responsible for the
interpretation and analysis presented here.
1. This comparison is based on data from the Conference Board. This dataset was originally developed by Angus
Maddison in a series of publications. It uses the 1990 International Geary–Khamis dollar, a hypothetical unit of
currency that takes into account both Purchasing Power Parities (PPP) and the international average of commodity
prices. As such, the Geary–Khamis dollar allows researchers to make cross-country and over-time comparisons: Angus
Maddison, Historical Statistics for the World Economy: 1 –2003 AD (2008), available at:
Maddison/Historical_Statistics/horizontal-file_03-2007.xls (accessed 16 September 2008); The Conference Board,
Total Economy Database (January 2009), available at: (accessed 4 May

ISSN 1067-0564 print/ 1469-9400 online/10/650479–23 q 2010 Taylor & Francis

DOI: 10.1080/10670561003666095







Downloaded By: [University of Groningen] At: 10:17 12 March 2011

1945 1950 1955 1960 1965 1970 1975 1980 1985 1990 1995 2000 2005 2010
Figure 1. The rise of China’s economy.
Note: Real GDP in billions of 1990 US dollars converted at Geary – Khamis Purchasing
Power Parities.
Source: The Conference Board and Groningen Growth and Development Centre, Total
Economy Database (January 2009), available at:
economics (accessed 19 January 2009).

sources and assumptions about currency values, China today has either the world’s
second largest or third largest economy.2
China’s economic rise has been accomplished through GDP growth at a
remarkably high average rate of approximately 6.7% per year since 1950, which
accelerated to an average of 8.3% per year during the post-reform period from 1978
to 2007. Sustained growth at such a rate is an astounding achievement that may be
unparalleled in world history.3 In per capita terms, China still stands well behind
Japan and the advanced industrial countries of Europe and North America, and it is
likely to remain behind for quite some time to come,4 but because of China’s
2. China’s National Bureau of Statistics reported that China’s GDP was 18.4 trillion yuan in 2005. If we use the
annual average of nominal exchange rates, which was 8.2 yuan per dollar, then China’s GDP was only US$2.2 trillion.
Many economists prefer to use Purchasing Power Parity (PPP) statistics, which convert foreign currencies into a
common currency (usually the US dollar) on the basis of the actual purchasing power of those currencies, based on
surveys of the prices of various goods and services in each country. Using PPP, the International Comparison Program
(ICP), which is coordinated by the World Bank, reported China’s 2005 GDP to be US$8.8 trillion, making China the
world’s second largest economy. However, revised PPP data released by the World Bank in December 2007 put
China’s GDP at US$5.3 trillion, 40% smaller than the ICP’s previous estimate. The revised figure puts China’s GDP
at 43.1% of that of the US. The revision decreased China’s 2005 share of world GDP from 14.2% to 9.7%, while the
US share rose from 20.5% to 22.5%. See ‘Clipping the dragon’s wings, recalculating China’s GDP’, Economist,
(22 December 2007); Wayne M. Morrison and Michael F. Martin, How Large Is China’s Economy? Does It Matter?
(Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service, 2008).
3. These average annual real GDP growth rates were calculated by the authors using the Total Economy
Database. The figures are slightly different from China’s official average annual real GDP growth rates, which were
5.3% from 1960 to 1978 and 9.7% from 1979 to 2006. See Craig K. Elwell et al., Is China a Threat to the US
Economy? (Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service, 2007), p. 5. During the same 1950–2007 period,
according to the Conference Board, Japan’s average annual growth rate was only 5.3%. A stronger rival for rapid
growth is South Korea, whose annual GDP grew at a 7.3% annual rate from 1950 to 2007, though only at 6.5%
(compared with China’s 8.3%) from 1978 to 2007.
4. According to the Total Economy Database, China’s per capita GDP in 1990 US dollars was merely US$6,003,
compared with US$31,378 for the US, US$23,135 for Japan, and US$19,994 for South Korea.


immense population, its total economy is expected by many experts to surpass that of
the United States and become the largest in the world by the middle of the twenty-first
century. Indeed, according to at least one plausible estimate, China’s economic size
will match America’s by 2035 and double it by mid-century.5
As China’s economic strength has grown, enhanced political and military power has
not lagged far behind. A large, advanced economy provides the foundations for a strong
military with technologically advanced weapon systems. Economic strength also
provides the resources to create and distribute cultural products, to launch diplomatic
efforts abroad, and to offer foreign aid. Deepening relationships of trade, aid, and
investment can be used as carrots or sticks to exert influence over other countries.
While growing economically, China has won diplomatic recognition from other
countries, broadened its diplomatic activity, participated more in international
institutions, built up its military, and wielded more geopolitical influence in Asia and
Downloaded By: [University of Groningen] At: 10:17 12 March 2011

around the world. In this paper we explore how Americans perceive the rise in
China’s world influence and how they react to it, in relation to alternative theories of
international relations.6
Some realist theorists like John Mearsheimer argue that, in an anarchic international
system, great powers fear each other and compete to gain a position of dominant power in
order to ensure their own survival. They are ‘fated to clash’ and are prone to go to war.7
These realists tend to see rising powers like China as particularly dangerous. Other
scholars maintain that China is acting like a ‘status-quo’ power, cautious, responsible,
focused on its internal problems and avoiding conflict.8 Neo-liberals envision China as
integratable into a peaceful world system through economic and diplomatic engagement
and a web of normative obligations.9 Chinese leaders, for their part, insist that China is on
the road to ‘peaceful development’, working for a peaceful, harmonious world, not
seeking hegemony and not threatening anyone.10
5. Albert Keidel, China’s Economic Rise—Fact and Fiction (Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for
International Peace, 2008), p. 1, but see pp. 5–6. There is no clear consensus on when China will overtake the US as
the world’s largest economy. Global Insight, a leading economic forecasting firm, has predicted that China’s economy
will overtake the US economy by 2015. Quoted from Elwell et al., Is China a Threat to the US Economy?, p. 15.
6. While each of the three dominant types of international relations theories assesses China’s rise from a different
perspective, these theories should not be viewed as monolithic. Instead, within each theory there are competing views.
For an excellent review of inter-theory and within-theory disagreements about China’s rise, see Aaron L. Friedberg,
‘The future of US–China relations: is conflict inevitable?’, International Security 30(2), (2005), pp. 7–45.
7. John J. Mearsheimer, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, 1st edn (New York: Norton, 2001), pp. xi– xiii. It
should be noted that Mearsheimer distinguishes his own theory of ‘offensive’ realism—which emphasizes the
motivation of survival in an anarchic system but postulates relentless power seeking with the goal of becoming a
hegemon—with Hans Morgenthau’s ‘human nature realism’ and with Kenneth Waltz’s ‘defensive’ (though also
structural) realism. See Ibid., pp. 17–22; Hans J. Morgenthau, Politics among Nations: The Struggle for Power and
Peace (New York: Knopf, 1948); and Kenneth N. Waltz, Man, the State, and War: A Theoretical Analysis (New York:
Columbia University Press, 1964). Defensive realists like Kenneth Lieberthal and Jeffrey Garten tend to be less
apprehensive about the rise of China, and more supportive of peaceful engagement than are neoconservatives or
offensive realists like Mearsheimer. See Jeffrey E. Garten, ‘Power couple’, New York Times, (15 January 1996),
p. A11; Kenneth Lieberthal, ‘The China challenge’, Foreign Affairs 74(6), (1995), pp. 35–49.
8. Avery Goldstein, Rising to the Challenge: China’s Grand Strategy and International Security (Stanford, CA:
Stanford University Press, 2005); Alastair Iain Johnston, ‘Is China a status quo power?’, International Security 27(4),
(2003), pp. 5 –56.
9. John G. Ikenberry, ‘The rise of China and the future of the West’, Foreign Affairs 87(1), (2008), pp. 23 –37.
10. China State Council, White Paper: China’s Peaceful Development Road (22 December 2005), available at: (accessed 28 January 2009).


What do ordinary Americans think? Are they ignorant or oblivious of China’s rise?
Are they excessively complacent about a growing threat? Or, on the contrary, are they
unjustifiably alarmist, belligerent, or erratic in their views? Are they likely to stand in
the way of sensible US policy making toward China?
We will see that most such fears about the American public are unwarranted. Far
from being oblivious or complacent, most Americans are well aware of China’s
increasing power and influence in the world; many feel uneasy about potential
military rivalry from China and favor certain efforts to balance China’s power, but
there are few signs of alarmism, belligerence, or erratic fluctuations in opinion. Most
Americans oppose military conflict or active efforts to limit China’s rise. Large
majorities seek friendly and cooperative relations.

2. China emerges on the world scene

Downloaded By: [University of Groningen] At: 10:17 12 March 2011

Where trade and investment go, diplomacy and geopolitical relationships nearly
always follow. After decades of relative isolation while focusing on domestic
economic development, China burst forth onto the world scene in a big way—first
with increased exports to and imports from more and more countries around the
globe; then with broader political and diplomatic influence around the world; and
eventually with extensive investment and aid abroad, particularly in Africa.
China’s trade with the United States soared after the 1972 Nixon opening and
especially after the 1978 Deng reforms. The same was true of its trade with other
partners, particularly Japan, Germany, and Singapore. In just ten years between 1976
and 1986, China’s total foreign trade as a proportion of its GDP jumped from about
10% to about 27%.11
Trading partners become dependent upon each other; they tend to influence each
others’ policy making, if only by creating incentives to avoid conflicts that would
interfere with trade.12 Thus South Korea, the countries of Southeast Asia, and even
Australia have gradually pursued more China-friendly (and less US-dependent)
policies as their economic relationships with China have deepened.13
The Sino –Australian relationship nicely illustrates the interactions between
economics and foreign policy. When the US deployed two aircraft carrier battle
groups to the Taiwan Strait in the 1996 missile crisis, Australia was the only Asian
power to openly support the Americans; yet ten years later, when the US Secretary of
State Condoleezza Rice expressed persistent concern about China’s rising military
power, her Australian counterpart, Alexander Downer, was quick to warn against US

11. Madelyn C. Ross, ‘China’s international economic behavior’, in Thomas W. Robinson and David
Shambaugh, eds, Chinese Foreign Policy: Theory and Practice (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), pp. 436,
12. Karl Deutsch et al. strongly argued that international trade and other cross-border interactions lead to
integration and peaceful relations by making war more costly and hence less likely. Karl Wolfgang Deutsch et al.,
Political Community and the North Atlantic Area: International Organization in the Light of Historical Experience
(Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1957).
13. See David Shambaugh, ed., Power Shift: China and Asia’s New Dynamics (Berkeley, CA: University of
California Press, 2005), especially chs 6, 8 and 9.


efforts to ‘contain’ China and to assert that Australia’s relationship with China ‘has it
own dynamics’.14
This about-face of Australian foreign policy appears to have its roots in economics.
Within just nine years (1998– 2007), bilateral trade soared from US$9.9 billion to
US$57.4 billion, making China the largest trading partner of Australia, a position that
had been held by Japan for 36 years.15 Not surprisingly, the former Australian Prime
Minister John Howard, who pointed to China as his greatest foreign policy success,
met the former Chinese President Jiang Zemin more often than he did any other
foreign leader. When Kevin Rudd—the current Prime Minister and a fluent Mandarin
speaker—made his first overseas state visit, his destination was Beijing, not
Washington or Tokyo.16 Booming economic ties undoubtedly have also contributed
to Australians’ increasingly positive attitude toward China. A public opinion poll in
2006 reported 46% of Australians having a ‘positive attitude’ toward China,
Downloaded By: [University of Groningen] At: 10:17 12 March 2011

compared with 29% for the United States, a long-time ally of Australia.17
On a different front, in the 1990s China’s national oil companies (CNPC, Sinopec,
CNOOC)—apparently seeking profits abroad in the face of price controls at home,
rather than pursuing any grand strategy—began purchasing stakes in overseas oil
fields: first in Thailand, Canada, and Peru (1993); then Indonesia (1994– 1995),
Sudan, Kazakhstan, and Venezuela. By 1999 top Chinese government officials,
worried about energy supplies, had come to see investments in ‘equity oil’ abroad as
helpful in limiting supply disruptions or price increases that could come from a world
market dominated by Western companies and OPEC. The Chinese Communist
Party’s Central Committee announced a ‘go out’ (zouchuqu) strategy, encouraging
Chinese state companies to invest abroad through preferential loans and other
generous government support.18
More recently Chinese oil companies have invested heavily in Nigeria, Angola,
Iran, and many other places, with the China Development Bank and the China Export
Import Bank often providing below-market lines of credit to the host country to
finance infrastructure, social, and industrial projects—projects that generally require
hiring Chinese contractors who often bring in their own Chinese labor forces.19
China’s courtship of African countries has paid off handsomely, as the African
continent now provides an estimated one fourth of China’s oil imports. Sudan is
believed to be China’s most successful energy investment. With a reported US$15
14. Janaki Kremmer, ‘Once lock-step Australia tunes out US drumbeat on China’, Christian Science Monitor,
(17 March 2006), p. 5; Steven R. Weisman, ‘Rice and Australian counterpart differ about China’, New York Times,
(17 March 2006), p. A8.
15. William Choong, ‘Australia’s China conundrum’, Strait Times, (30 December 2008).
16. Mirror Australian Telegraph Publications, ‘Good relations with China will benefit all’, The Australian, (2002),
p. 8.
17. Anthony Paul, ‘China, Australia come full circle’, Strait Times, (4 April 2006).
18. Matthew Forney, ‘China’s quest for oil’, Time Magazine, (18 October 2004), available at: http://www.time.
com/time/printout/0,8816,725174,00.html (accessed 17 February 2009); International Crisis Group, China’s Thirst
for Oil (9 June 2008), available at:¼ 5478 (accessed 10 February
19. Peter C. Evans and Erica S. Downs, Untangling China’s Quest for Oil through State-Backed Financial Deals
(Brookings Institution, May 2006), available at:, /media/Files/rc/papers/2006/
05china_evans/pb154.pdf (accessed 17 February 2009).


billion oil-related Chinese investment, Sudan now sends 60% of its oil exports to
China, accounting for roughly 7% of China’s oil imports.20
The size of these investments should not be overstated: Chinese firms’
international production of oil still accounts for only a very small part of the global
oil trade, perhaps less than 2% of it.21 For small African countries, however, the
Chinese presence can loom very large and can bring with it great political leverage.
Perhaps also heavy responsibilities. Western human rights groups and governments
have strongly criticized China for its entanglement with regimes seen as repressive or
as threatening to the world order, especially Sudan and Iran. China’s policies seem to
have altered somewhat in response, showing less resistance to actions on Darfur
and other matters in the UN Security Council.22
Beyond the Middle East and Africa, China has expanded ties with Latin America,
seeking soy, oil, iron, and customers for exports in the Southern Cone; fishmeal, oil,
Downloaded By: [University of Groningen] At: 10:17 12 March 2011

and alliances in the countries of the Andes; and strategic positions in Mexico, Central
America, and the Caribbean. Throughout the region the PRC has worked to displace
and isolate Taiwan diplomatically.23
On a smaller scale, the China Investment Corporation, the newly formed US$200-
billion sovereign wealth fund, has begun pursuing other kinds of investments
abroad, including private equity joint partnerships. In May 2007, several months
before its official launching, the mammoth fund invested US$3 billion in
Blackstone, a US private equity firm. Later that year it invested US$5 billion in
Morgan Stanley.24
As China’s economy and its trade and investment activity have grown, China has
also become more active in international organizations and international diplomatic
relations. After entering the UN in 1971, China rapidly joined many international
intergovernmental organizations. It belonged to only one such organization in 1966
but 21 in 1977, 29 in 1984, and 37 in 1989. Perhaps even more remarkably, China’s
non-governmental international organization memberships jumped from 58 in 1966
to 71 in 1977, 355 in 1984, and 677 in 1989.25 Chinese businesspeople, diplomats,
and cultural centers have begun appearing everywhere. Some Americans deride this
20. For comprehensive scholarly reviews of China’s energy involvement in Africa, see Erica S. Downs, ‘The fact
and fiction of Sino–African energy relations’, China Security 3(2), (2007), pp. 42 –68; Stephanie Hanson, China,
Africa, and Oil (Council on Foreign Relations, 6 June 2008), available at:
(accessed 17 February 2009); Dennis M. Tull, ‘China’s engagement in Africa: scope, significance and consequences’,
Journal of Modern African Studies 44(3), (2006), pp. 459 –479.
21. According to Forney, Chinese-owned overseas production supplies about 5% of China’s total oil imports:
Forney, ‘China’s quest for oil’.
22. For a thorough discussion of China’s energy relationship with Sudan and the impact of this relationship on
China’s Sudan policy, see International Crisis Group, China’s Thirst for Oil.
23. R. Evan Ellis, China in Latin America: The Whats and Wherefores (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 2009).
24. Bloomberg News, ‘China to shift $20 billion as capital for policy bank’, New York Times, (1 January 2008),
p. C9. For critical assessments of the China Investment Corporation, see Victor C. Shih, ‘A creature of the
government: the China Investment Corporation’, paper presented at the Cornell Workshop on Sovereign Wealth
Funds, Cornell University, 6 November 2008; Edwin M. Truman, ‘The management of China’s international
reserves: China and a SWF scoreboard’, paper presented at the Conference on China’s Exchange Rate Policy,
Peterson Institute for International Economics, 19 October 2007; Ming Zhang and Fan He, ‘China’s sovereign wealth
fund—weakness and challenges’, Working Paper No. 0823 (Research Center for International Finance of the Chinese
Academy of Social Sciences, 2008).
25. Samuel S. Kim, ‘China’s international organizational behavior’, in Robinson and Shambaugh, eds,
Chinese Foreign Policy, p. 406.


as a ‘charm offensive’,26 but China’s newly friendly relations with many countries—
especially in the developing world—go well beyond charm to include mutually
beneficial economic deals, settlement of border disputes, and strategic partnerships.
On some major security issues China has still tended to lie low in the United
Nations (letting France, Germany and Russia bear most of the burden of opposing the
US invasion of Iraq, for example), but in dealing with US pressures on North Korea to
abandon its nuclear weapons programs China has played a major mediating role,
hosting three- and six-nation talks that led to major agreements and de-escalation of
tensions.27 And China has begun to actively participate in UN peacekeeping
operations. Between 1990 and 2006, China sent 5,872 personnel to 15 UN
peacekeeping missions, making it the largest contributor of peacekeeping forces
among the five permanent members of the UN Security Council.28 It has become an
active player with ASEAN and various economic organizations including the World
Downloaded By: [University of Groningen] At: 10:17 12 March 2011

Trade Organization, where China has supported developing countries’ demands for
fair treatment of their agricultural exports—long resisted by the US and European
countries that subsidize their own farmers.29
There is every reason to expect that China will play an even greater part in world
diplomacy in the future.

3. Americans’ awareness of China’s rise

In recent years Americans have become well aware of the rise of China’s influence in
the world.
When a 2006 Chicago Council on Global Affairs (hereafter CCGA, formerly
Chicago Council on Foreign Relations) survey asked respondents to rate (on a 0 – 10
scale) how much influence various countries had in the world, the average American
gave China a substantial score (6.4) that put China ahead of the EU (6.0) and Russia
(5.6), and tied with Japan, but behind Great Britain (6.7) and far behind the
United States (8.5) (see Figure 2).30 In terms of how much influence countries ‘will
have’ in the world ‘ten years from now’, however, China scored higher (6.8)—closer
to the US (8.4), and above Japan (6.6), Britain (6.4), the EU (6.1) and everyone else.
Just two years later, in the 2008 CCGA survey, Americans judged that some of that
predicted change had already occurred. The United States was again rated as having
the most world influence (9.5) but China now came in second (7.9), ahead of the EU

26. Joshua Kurlantzick, Charm Offensive: How China’s Soft Power is Transforming the World (New Haven, CT:
Yale University Press, 2007).
27. Carin Zissis and Jayshree Bajoria, The Six-Party Talks on North Korea’s Nuclear Program (Council on
Foreign Relations, 14 October 2008), available at: (accessed 22 February
28. ‘China the largest UNSC contributor to peacekeeping missions’, Xinhua News Agency (28 September 2006),
available at: (accessed 23 February 2009).
29. G77 and China, Declaration by the Group of 77 and China on the Fourth WTO Ministerial Conference at
Doha, Qatar (22 October 2001), available at: (accessed 23 February 2009); G77
and China, Declaration by the Group of 77 and China on the Fifth WTO Ministerial Conference (22 August 2003),
available at: (accessed 23 February 2009).
30. This and other recent surveys have been conducted for the CCGA by Knowledge Networks (KN), using web-
based interviews with a sample of Americans drawn from their representative panel of respondents.


U.S. 9.5

China 7.9

Great Britain 7.8


EU 7.8

Japan 7.5

Russia 7.1

India 6.2

France 6.2
Downloaded By: [University of Groningen] At: 10:17 12 March 2011

Brazil 5.5

2006 2008
Figure 2. Americans’ mean ratings of selected countries’ influence in the world.
Source: CCGA. Question wording: ‘I would like to know how much influence you think each
of the following countries has in the world. Please answer on a 0 to 10 scale, with 0
meaning they are not at all influential and 10 meaning they are extremely influential’.

(7.8), Britain (7.8), Japan (7.5) and the other countries (see Figure 2), Brazil was not
asked in 2006.31 In the context of ‘thinking about the role each of these countries
plays in the world’, a majority of Americans (52%) also judged China to be ‘very
important’ to the United States: substantially more than said the same about Japan
(45%), Saudi Arabia (44%), Israel (40%), Mexico (37%), Russia (34%), or most
other countries. China trailed behind only close US partners Great Britain (60%) and
Canada (53%) (see Figure 3).
More and more Americans have come to believe that in the next 50 years ‘another
nation’ (presumably China) will become as powerful as—or more powerful than—
the United States. In the 2006 CCGA survey, 40% of Americans said that ‘the United
States will continue to be the world’s leading power’; 55% said otherwise. In 2008
only about one third of Americans (35%) predicted continued US dominance, with
two-thirds (65%) predicting that another nation would catch up. Some 43% said that
another nation ‘will become as powerful’ as the US; 22% said that the US ‘will be
surpassed’ by another nation.
When Americans compare countries in the Asian region—including the United
States—they already see China as the most influential country in Asia. The 2008
CCGA Soft Power survey, which asked for 0 – 10 ratings of various countries in terms
of ‘how much economic influence they have in Asia’, found that average ratings put
China (7.6) ahead of Japan (7.3), the US (7.0) and South Korea (5.5). Even the
average ratings of countries according to ‘their military strength in Asia’ put China
31. The rises in average influence ratings for all countries between 2006 and 2008 are probably a methodological
artifact. In 2008, respondents who replied ‘don’t know’ to many questions [who probably tended to give low (e.g. 5.0)
ratings when they gave ratings] were eliminated. This should not, however, affect the relative rankings that we focus on.


Great Britain 60
Canada 53
China 52
Japan 45
Saudi Arabia 44
Israel 40
Mexico 37
Russia 34
Iran 32
Pakistan 30
Germany 29
Afghanistan 25
India 25
Downloaded By: [University of Groningen] At: 10:17 12 March 2011

France 22
Egypt 16
Venezuela 16
Brazil 14
Indonesia 9
Figure 3. Percentage of Americans saying each country is ‘very important’ to the US.
Source: 2008 CCGA. Question wording: ‘Here is a list of countries. Thinking about the role
each of these countries plays in the world, how important is each country to the
United States? Very important, somewhat important, not very important, or not at all

(7.6) ahead of the United States (7.5), Japan (5.5, surely an understatement), and
South Korea (5.3). Two-thirds of Americans (68%) said that ‘in the future . . . China
will . . . be the leader of Asia’; only 28% disagreed.
The 2008 CCGA Soft Power survey made clear that perceptions of strong Chinese
influence in Asia rest chiefly upon China’s hard economic and military power, not on
‘soft power’—based on diplomacy, cultural influence, enviable values, and the like—
of the sort that Joseph Nye and others have advocated as a potent instrument in world
Only a little over one-third of Americans (37%), for example, saw China as even
somewhat effective in ‘working to resolve the problem of North Korea’s nuclear
weapons program’; 50% said somewhat or very ineffective (in reality, though,
progress with North Korea depended heavily on Chinese leadership). More broadly,
Americans rated China rather low in terms of ‘us[ing] diplomacy to resolve key
problems in Asia’ (China’s average rating was only 3.8 on the 0– 10 scale, compared
with Japan’s 6.5 and South Korea’s 5.3) or ‘build[ing] trust and cooperation among
Asian countries’ (just 3.5, compared with Japan’s 5.8 and South Korea’s 4.8).
Americans saw China as only moderately effective in ‘promoting its policies to
people in Asia’ (4.9), substantially less effective than the US (6.1) or Japan (5.6)
though more effective than South Korea (4.5).
32. Joseph S. Jr. Nye, Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics (New York: Public Affairs, 2004). See
also Christopher B. Whitney and David Shambaugh, Soft Power in Asia: Results of a 2008 Multinational Survey of
Public Opinion (Chicago, IL: Chicago Council on Global Affairs, 2009).


Similarly, Americans rated China rather low in terms of ‘provid[ing] leadership in

international institutions like the UN and the World Trade Organization’ (average
rating of 4.2 on the 0 – 10 scale), well below Japan (6.3) and even South Korea (4.5).
Very few Americans, just 5%, had heard a lot or even ‘some’ about China’s concept
of a ‘Harmonious World’; the vast majority (94%) said they had heard not very much
or nothing at all. China was rated as not very effective in promoting its ideas about the
best world order (4.0, well below the US 6.5).
Correctly or not, then, Americans do not perceive much diplomatic leadership by
Strikingly, Americans also perceive very little Chinese influence in terms of the
cultural or political aspects of soft power. Despite the popularity in the United States of
Chinese food, Bruce Lee movies, and the like, in the Soft Power survey Americans
gave only a middling rating to China (4.6) in terms of the influence of popular culture
Downloaded By: [University of Groningen] At: 10:17 12 March 2011

(‘such things as movies, music, clothing and cuisine’) upon US popular culture:
substantially lower ratings than they gave Japan (5.9), though higher than South Korea
(3.7). While Americans acknowledged China’s ‘rich cultural heritage’ (8.0) and rated
that heritage nearly as highly as Japan’s (8.4), they rated China below Japan in terms of
having ‘an appealing popular culture’, being ‘an attractive destination for international
tourism’, or—oddly, given the origins of Japan’s major religions—as having
‘developed religious traditions that have been influential in other parts of the world’.33
Americans are particularly skeptical of China as a beacon for respecting human
rights or as having a political system that can serve as an example for other countries.
In the 2008 Soft Power survey they gave an extremely low average rating to China as
‘respect[ing] human rights and the rule of law’ (2.7), way below both Japan (6.5) and
South Korea (5.0). In fact this was one of the lowest ratings of any country on any
topic in the whole multi-national study. In the same survey China was rated quite low
(4.0)—well below Japan (6.9) or South Korea (5.2)—in terms of having ‘a political
system that serves the needs of its people’.34 Thus it appears that aversion to China’s
political system as ‘communist’ lingers on among Americans. Despite China’s
obvious economic successes, in a 2006 CCGA survey only a modest plurality
of Americans (49% to 41%) judged that when it comes to economic development
‘the way that the Chinese government manages its economy and its political system is
more of an advantage’ than a disadvantage for China.
So far, our evidence suggests that Americans see China as having become highly
influential in Asia and the world economically and also—at least potentially—very
powerful militarily. How do Americans react? Are they complacent, alarmist, or
something else?
33. Average ratings for having an appealing popular culture were China 5.5, Japan 7.1, South Korea 4.5; for being
an attractive destination for international tourism, China 6.6, Japan 7.8, South Korea 5.0; for having developed
religious traditions that have been influential in other parts of the world, China 4.9, Japan 5.2, South Korea 4.0.
34. Americans generally dislike socialism or large bureaucracies: fully 80% said that the ‘better economic
system’ is one with an economy defined by ‘free markets and open competition’ rather than one defined by ‘broad
government intervention and control’. In a parallel survey, a large majority (68%) of Chinese respondents actually


4. Worries about China’s influence

A substantial number of Americans are concerned about the rise in China’s influence.
With respect to the Asian region, the 2008 Soft Power survey found that most
Americans (53%) actually said that China is having a ‘very’ or ‘somewhat’ positive
influence in Asia, with only 39% saying it was a negative influence, though more saw
positive influence by Japan (81%) and South Korea (63%). But a large majority of
Americans (71% to just 27%) said that they were very or somewhat ‘uncomfortable’
with the idea of China being the leader (emphasis added) of Asia. As noted above,
Americans are skeptical about various concrete aspects of China’s influence in
Asia—working to solve common problems, dealing with North Korea, and the like.
When it comes to world influence, many Americans are uneasy. In 2006, the
CCGA found that Americans’ average rating of how much influence they would want
(emphasis added) China to have in the world—4.6 on a 0 –10 scale—fell well below
Downloaded By: [University of Groningen] At: 10:17 12 March 2011

their rating of how much influence they thought China actually had at that time (6.4),
and even further below the amount of influence China was expected to have ten years
in the future (6.8). The desired level of China’s influence was much lower than that
for Japan (5.8) or the EU (5.7), let alone the United States (8.2).
For two decades since 1990, when the CCGA has asked respondents to judge how
important various possible threats are to the ‘vital interest of the United States in the
next ten years’, substantial numbers of Americans have said that ‘the development of
China as a world power’ is a ‘critical’ threat, and many others have called it ‘an
important but not critical threat’ rather than ‘not an important threat at all’. During the
middle and late 1990s, majorities actually said that China’s development was a
critical threat—57% said so in both 1994 and 1998. This figure dropped as low as
33% in 2004 (surveys conducted in different ways gave somewhat different results),
but it then crept up again to 40% in 2008. That is, in 2008 some two-fifths of
Americans said that the development of China as a world power represents a ‘critical
threat’ to the vital interest of the United States (see Figure 4). Another 54% said
‘important but not critical’ threat.35
We should note, however, that the proportion of Americans seeing China’s
development as a world power as posing a critical threat has never been as high as the
proportions seeing many other potential threats as critical. In 2008 China ranked well
below the middle on a list of 12 potential threats: it came in ninth, below energy
disruptions (72% ‘critical’), international terrorism (70%), nuclear proliferation
(67%), Islamic extremism (60%), global warming (44%), and even ‘large numbers of
immigrants and refugees coming into the US’ (51%), as well as ‘violent Islamist
groups in Pakistan and Afghanistan’ (55%) and Islamic fundamentalism (42%).
35. The China threat question was asked face-to-face in the 1990, 1994, and 1998 surveys, but by telephone in
2002 and over the Internet in 2004, 2006, and 2008. It and 11 other threat questions were also asked for the CCGA on
a small 2004 CCI telephone survey, which can be used to identify mode effects and to make direct, single-mode
comparisons with the 2002 telephone data. For methodological details, see the Chicago Council on Global Affairs,
Global Views 2004 (Chicago, IL: Chicago Council on Global Affairs, 2004), pp. 4–5. The 2004 telephone result for
China was 40% ‘critical threat’, substantially higher than the 33% on the Internet survey done at about the same time
and suggestive of a mode effect; but taking all 12 threat items together, ‘critical threat’ responses averaged only 3.0
percentage points higher by telephone than on the Internet, indicating that any mode effect was fairly small. Still, the
2002 57% ‘critical threat’ result appears to be a bit inflated in relation to the subsequent Internet results, so that part of
the post-1998 drop probably occurred by 2002 rather than afterward.







1990 1994 1998 2002 2006 2010
Figure 4. Percentage of Americans saying that the development of China as a world power is a critical
threat to the United States.
Source: CCGA surveys. Question wording: ‘Below is a list of possible threats to the vital
interest of the United States in the next 10 years. For each one, please select whether
Downloaded By: [University of Groningen] At: 10:17 12 March 2011

you see this as a critical threat, an important but not critical threat, or not an
important threat at all’. The use of different survey modes in various years had some
moderate effects.

Multivariate regression analyses indicate that part of Americans’ perceptions of

threat from the rise of China’s power is based on economics, but most of it involves
national security. As is generally the case with opinions about foreign policy,
individuals’ personal and social characteristics do not make a lot of difference. Being
Evangelical (and perhaps being Hispanic) leads to a bit more tendency to see China as
a critical threat; being highly educated or employed (and perhaps being Catholic)
leads to a bit less. Several attitudinal factors are more closely related. Concern about
the threat of low-wage economic competition and a focus on domestic welfare goals
each has a substantial independent relationship with perceptions of China’s rise as a
threat, even when many other factors are controlled for. Still stronger are the
relationships with perceptions of threat from conflict between China and Taiwan, and
with general assessments of security-related goals and threats (see Table 1).
We cannot be entirely sure about causal ordering here, but it is clear that the
Americans who are most worried about security issues in general also tend to worry most
about a threat to the United States from the development of China as a world power.

5. Cultural, economic, and military influence

China’s cultural influence on the United States appears to be neither very strong nor
particularly positive. Perhaps surprisingly, the 2008 Soft Power survey found only a
bare plurality of Americans (48% to 44%) saying that the influence of China’s popular
culture on the United States was ‘mainly positive’ rather than mainly negative. Only a
minority of Americans (34%) said that it is important for children to learn the Chinese
language in order to succeed in the future—though a majority (54% to 43%) did say
that they favored greater emphasis on studying Asian languages in US schools, and a
large majority (69%) favored more student exchanges between the US and Asian
countries. A bare 3% of Americans said that China would be their first choice if they
were to send their own children to receive their higher education in another country.


Table 1. What affects perceptions of threat from China’s development as a world power?

Independent variable I II III IV

Hispanic n.s. 0.06 þ 0.06 þ 0.06 þ

Catholic 20.04 þ 20.03 þ n.s. 20.04*
Evangelical 0.05** n.s. n.s. n.s.
Income level n.s. n.s. n.s. n.s.
Education level 20.10** 20.14** 20.11** 20.09**
Employed 20.05** 20.06** 20.04* 20.04*
Conservatism n.s. n.s. n.s.
Republican party loyalty n.s. n.s. n.s.
‘Active part’ internationalism 0.10** 0.05* n.s.
Threat of China– Taiwan conflict 0.33** 0.22**
Threat of low-wage economic competition 0.15** 0.09**
Security threats (non-China-specific) 0.20**
Downloaded By: [University of Groningen] At: 10:17 12 March 2011

Security goals (non-China-specific) 0.11 þ

Domestic welfare goals 0.19**
Humanitarian goals 0.09 þ
Cooperation goals n.s.
R 0.208 0.270 0.471 0.527
Adj. R-squared 0.031 0.057 0.206 0.259
DF 1033 953 943 942

Notes: þp , 0.10; *p , 0.05; **p , 0.01.

Source: 2008 CCGA US general public survey.
Entries are unstandardized OLS regression coefficients, with all variables rescaled to the 0 – 1
range. Thirteen demographic variables were included in all regressions; except as noted, only
those with significant coefficients are shown. All attitudinal variables included in regressions are
displayed. Dependent variable: ‘Below is a list of possible threats to the vital interest of the
United States in the next 10 years. For each one, please select whether you see this as a critical
threat [1], an important but not critical threat [0.5], or not an important threat at all [0] . . . The
development of China as a world power’.

Many Americans perceive China to be engaging in ‘unfair’ trade practices, and

many worry about negative impacts upon Americans’ jobs and wages from low-wage
economic competition. Over-all, Americans tend to have negative reactions to the
idea of the Chinese economy growing to be as large as the US economy.36
The 2006 CCGA survey, however, provides further evidence that national security
rather than purely economic worries are most important in concerns about China’s
rise. The CCGA respondents were asked to react to two ‘possible future trends’:
(1) ‘China becomes significantly more powerful economically (emphasis added) than
it is today’; and (2) ‘China becomes significantly more powerful militarily (emphasis
added) than it is today’. The responses signaled a sharp distinction between these two
aspects of China’s power. Americans were evenly divided (47% to 48%) on whether
China becoming economically more powerful would be ‘mainly positive’ or ‘mainly
negative’, but a large majority said that growth in China’s military power would be
‘mainly negative’ (75%) rather than ‘mainly positive’ (only 19%).
Let us look more closely at the military implications of China’s rise.
36. For detailed discussion of Americans’ reactions to China’s economy, see Benjamin I. Page and Tao Xie, Living
with the Dragon: How the American Public Views the Rise of China (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010).


6. Military threat?
In recent years not only certain IR realist scholars but also some popular writers,
politicians, and military leaders in the United States have warned about the
‘Red Dragon Rising’ (as a book title put it), arguing that China’s increased military
spending and modernization of its armed forces may pose a long-term threat to US
In March 2009, China announced a 14.9% increase in its defense budget to a total
of US$70 billion (in current dollars), compared with US$58.8 billion in 2008.38
The Defense Department’s 2009 annual report to Congress on the ‘Military Power of
the People’s Republic of China’ maintained that China’s actual military spending was
actually much higher than announced. The report spoke of a rapid, ‘comprehensive
transformation from a mass army designed for protracted wars of attrition on its
territory to one capable of fighting and winning short-duration, high-intensity conflicts
Downloaded By: [University of Groningen] At: 10:17 12 March 2011

along its periphery against high-tech adversaries . . . ’. Despite acknowledging

China’s limited ability to project power at a distance, the report alluded to the fielding
of new, road-mobile (hence survivable) intercontinental ballistic missiles that could
hit US targets and damage US cities. It asserted that China’s military forces ‘continue
to develop and field disruptive military technologies . . . that are changing regional
military balances and that have implications beyond the Asia– Pacific region’.39
A sober look, however, indicates that—in terms of current ability to project force
abroad—China’s military is actually rather weak and has no hope of catching up with
the United States any time soon. Even if we accept the high-end US estimate that
China may have spent US$105–150 billion (in 2007 dollars) on its military in 2008,
that would be dwarfed by US spending, which amounts to roughly half of all military
spending in the world and is currently running around US$700 billion per year, when
various off-budget items—including much of the spending for the wars in Iraq and
Afghanistan—are added to the official 2009 budget base of US$515.4 billion.40
China may have been spending an increasing proportion of its GDP on the military,
but the fraction is now perhaps only 1%, contrasted with 4% for the US.41 Most of
China’s military budget has been going to its 2.3 million poorly paid military
personnel, not to weapons development. China’s military capabilities, which are
37. Edward Timperlake and William C. Triplett, II, Red Dragon Rising: Communist China’s Threat to America
(Washington, DC: Regnery, 1999).
38. ‘China’s defense budget to grow 14.9% in 2009’, Xinhua News Agency, (4 March 2009), available at: http:// (accessed 14 April 2009).
39. US Department of Defense, Annual Report to Congress: Military Power of the People’s Republic of China,
available at: (accessed 3 February 2009), p. I.
40. For fiscal year 2009, the total discretionary budget authority for the Department of Defense is US$585 billion,
and the total outlays are estimated to be US$651 billion. Office of Management and Budget (2009), available at: (accessed 28 June 2009).
41. For the Pentagon’s estimate of China’s 2008 defense budget, see US Department of Defense, Annual Report to
Congress, p. 31. According to China’s National Defense in 2008, a white paper released by the Chinese State Council
Information Office, China’s defense spending in 2007 was RMB355.491 billion, up 19.3% from 2006 but accounting
for merely 1.38% of China’s GDP and 7.14% of state financial expenditures. In 1998–2007 defense spending
increased at an annual rate of 15.9%, compared with 12.5% for GDP and 18.4% for state financial expenditures. Thus
China’s defense expenditures as a proportion of its GDP may have increased, but as a share of state financial
expenditure they have decreased. They remain very low as a proportion of GDP. China State Council Information
Office, China’s National Defense 2008 (20 January 2009), available at:
200901/t256758.htm (accessed 4 March 2009).


oriented toward border defense and possible cross-Straits conflict with Taiwan, are
vastly inferior to those of the United States.42 Indeed even the armed forces of
nominally pacifist Japan are seen by many experts as superior to those of China.43
Still, it is not fanciful to imagine that China’s economic rise may eventually bring
with it the ability to become a military superpower. If, for example, China’s GDP
actually continues to grow so fast that it is double the size of the US GDP by
mid-century, as some anticipate, then surely China will have the capacity—if it
wishes—to spend more on the military every year than the United States does.
It would still take China a long time to build up forces to match the accumulated
might of the United States;44 and it is far from a sure thing that China will ever be able
to challenge US control of the air and the seas, or indeed that China will want to do so.
Still, the possibility is there.
What would this mean for the United States?
Downloaded By: [University of Groningen] At: 10:17 12 March 2011

As we have noted, some realist theorists of international relations like John

Mearsheimer argue that the rise of new world powers inexorably leads to military
conflict with the old, ‘status quo’ powers. Just as the nineteenth and twentieth century
rise of Germany led to clashes with Britain, France, and the United States—
culminating in the devastation of World War I and World War II—and as the rise of
Japan led to conflict with Russia, China, and eventually also with the United States,
they foresee clashes between rising China and the now-dominant United States.45
In The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, Mearsheimer noted that if China’s
economy continues expanding at a rapid rate, it has the potential to become much
wealthier than Japan and even wealthier than the United States. Then, he claimed,
China would ‘almost certainly’ use its wealth to build ‘a mighty military machine’,
and would ‘surely pursue regional hegemony’, just as the US did in the Western
hemisphere during the nineteenth century. This would lead to conflict with Japan
and/or the United States and would make Asia a ‘far more dangerous place’. A future
Chinese threat would be particularly worrisome because it might be ‘far more
powerful and dangerous’ than any of the potential hegemons that the United States
confronted in the nineteenth century.46
As we have noted, many scholars disagree. Our own view is that a militarily
powerful China would not necessarily be a threat to the United States; much would
depend upon exactly what China sought and how the US and others decided to react.
If China’s trade and its energy supplies are not constricted, and (a crucial condition)
42. See Andrew Moravcsik, ‘Washington cries wolf: don’t believe the hype; Beijing’s military buildup isn’t as
scary as it seems’, Newsweek, (31 March 2008), available at: http://www/ (accessed
3 February 2009).
43. See Milton Ezrati, ‘On the horizon: the dawn of a new Sino–Japanese rivalry’, Harvard International Review
24(1), (2002), pp. 20–26; Thomas J. Hirschfeld, ‘Assessing China’s military potential’, East Asia 17(1), (1999),
pp. 95 –107.
44. While China’s relative strategic power still lags far behind that of the US, its increased absolute power
nonetheless can matter a great deal because it significantly raises the potential costs for the US of any armed conflict.
In other words, China would almost certainly lose badly in a war with the United States, but its rapidly increasing
absolute power gives it diplomatic leverage and may deter certain US actions, e.g. in relation to Taiwan.
45. On Japan and Germany, see Mearsheimer, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, pp. 172– 190. See also his
Chapter 9 on causes of great power war.
46. Ibid., pp. 397–402. Susan Shirk adds the caveat that domestic political fragility, in the face of a nationalistic
populace, could lead China to dangerous international behavior. Susan Shirk, China: Fragile Superpower (New York:
Oxford University Press, 2008).


if the West does not encourage long-term independence of Taiwan from China—a
prospect that would be anathema to the Chinese government and people—we believe
that it should be possible to continue peaceful engagement between the US and China
indefinitely. But what does the American public think?

7. Americans’ security worries

Without question, many Americans are worried about China’s actual or potential
military power. As we have seen, for example, the substantial minority seeing a
‘critical threat’ in the development of China as a world power focuses more on
military than on economic concerns. And three-quarters of Americans have said that
it would be ‘mainly negative’ if there were a significant increase in China’s military
power, whereas only about half said the same about a significant increase in China’s
Downloaded By: [University of Groningen] At: 10:17 12 March 2011

economic power. In the 2008 Soft Power survey, 70% of Americans said they were
worried that China could become a military threat to the United States in the future,
though only 25% were ‘very’ worried (45% said ‘somewhat’ worried).
What do Americans want to do about it? In the 2006 CCGA survey, about half of
the respondents (49%) said that the United States should ‘make active efforts’ to
ensure that no other country becomes a superpower. Military power was probably the
main thing on respondents’ minds when a majority (51% to 42%) in the 2008 Soft
Power survey said they favored ‘a US effort to contain China’s rise as a great political
and military power’, though it is doubtful that many embraced the full Cold War
implications that some experts load onto the word ‘contain’. Exactly what sort of
efforts did people have in mind?
One path involves alliances, particularly with Japan. In the regular 2008 CCGA
survey, a majority of Americans said that the United States and Japan should ‘work
together to limit the rise of Chinese power in the years ahead’. Opinion also tilted
toward ‘seek[ing] to strengthen’ the US alliance with Japan ‘so as to offset China’s
power’ (32%), as opposed to ‘downplay[ing] its alliance with Japan so as to improve
US relations with China’ (9%)—though a majority (54%) favored ‘mak[ing] no
change’ in the US alliance with Japan.47
Large majorities of Americans in the 2008 CCGA survey accepted two arguments
in favor of changing Japan’s Constitution ‘to allow Japan to engage in a wider range
of military activities outside of Japan’s territory’: that then Japan could
‘more effectively help the US in dealing with areas of instability or potential
conflicts around the world’ (65%), and that ‘with China’s growing military power and
the threat from North Korea, Japan needs to be freer to project its military power in
the region’ (66%). Only about half agreed with arguments that the constitution should
not be changed ‘because it might lead to increased tension with Japan’s neighbors,
including China, which were attacked by Japan during world War II’ (45%), or that
‘if Japan were to build up its military, this would probably lead to an arms race with
China, which could be destabilizing for Asia’ (49%). After having heard all these
arguments, a solid majority of Americans (57% to 38%) said they favored Japan
47. The prologue to the ‘strengthen its alliance with Japan’ question read: ‘As China becomes increasingly
powerful in the East Asia region, do you think the US should . . . ’.


changing its Constitution to allow it to engage in a wider range of military activities.

Large majorities favored Japan being able to participate in international
peacekeeping activities (84%) and in international combat missions in places like
Iraq (67%) and—more relevantly to us—Japan being able to ‘undertake independent
combat missions consistent with international law, just like any other country’ (69%).
A very large (83%) majority of Americans, however, said that Japan should not
develop nuclear weapons. Roughly two-thirds majorities agreed with the arguments
that that ‘would create the possibility that Japan’s rivalry with China could escalate
into a nuclear war’ (64%) and that it would ‘violate commitments under the Nuclear
Non-Proliferation Treaty and encourage other countries, such as Iran, to develop
nuclear weapons’ (70%); only about half (49%) said that Japan developing nuclear
weapons ‘would allow it to respond to China’s growing military power and the
potential threat from North Korea’.
Downloaded By: [University of Groningen] At: 10:17 12 March 2011

Americans’ sentiments in favor of increasing Japan’s conventional—though not

nuclear—military power in order to counterbalance China’s growing power fit at least
loosely with realists’ advocacy of great power ‘balancing’ activity in the face of rising
new powers, including ‘off-shore balancing’ by the United States in Asia.48 Recent
US policy has in fact appeared to follow such a formula, featuring modified, enhanced
or newly established alliances with Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and India.49
Particularly upsetting to China have been the ongoing US arms sales to Taiwan.
As recently as October 2008, the Pentagon announced the provision of US$6 billion
worth of high-tech weaponry (including US$3 billion worth of advanced Patriot
missile systems) to Taiwan, which China considers to be one of its own provinces.50
There is some evidence that the publics in several Asian countries actually favor
such US counterbalancing of China. In the multi-nation Soft Power study, large
majorities of South Koreans (89%) and Japanese (79%), and a solid majority of
Indonesians (57%) said that if the US removed its armed forces from East Asia, it was
very likely or somewhat likely that China and Japan would ‘build up their militaries
to compete with each other for dominance in the region’. And large majorities in both
Japan (69%) and South Korea (68%) said they favored their country ‘supporting a US
effort to contain China’s rise as a great political and military power’.
But Americans are not at all eager for military confrontation or conflict with China.
Year after year, when the CCGA has asked about various circumstances that might
justify using US troops in other parts of the world, substantial majorities have
opposed troop use ‘if China invaded Taiwan’. In 2008, 65% opposed such a use of US
troops, up from the 58% of 1998 and 2002 and from the 61% of 2004 and 2006 (see
Figure 5). In 2008, only 32% of Americans favored using US troops if China invaded
Taiwan, the lowest level of support for any of the six hypothetical troop uses they
were asked about. Similarly, only 19% of Americans saw ‘a confrontation between
48. See Mearsheimer, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, chs 7–8.
49. For changing US security and strategic policy in East Asia, see International Institute for Strategic Studies,
‘America’s alliances in East Asia: purposes and prospects’, Strategic Comments 11(3), (2005), available at: http://—2005/volume-11—issue-3/
americas-alliances-in-east-asia/; Carin Zissis, Crafting a US Policy on Asia (Council on Foreign Relations, 10 April
2007), available at: (accessed 5 March
50. See Tom Shanker, ‘Arms deal to Taiwan riles China’, New York Times, (5 October 2008), p. A13.











Downloaded By: [University of Groningen] At: 10:17 12 March 2011

1996 1998 2000 2002 2004 2006 2008 2010
Figure 5. Support for the use of US troops if China invaded Taiwan.
Source: CCGA surveys. Question wording: ‘There has been some discussion about the
circumstances that might justify using US troops in other parts of the world. Please
give your opinion about some situations. Would you favor or oppose the use of US
troops if China invaded Taiwan?’. Starting in 2004 the CCGA surveys were
conducted over the Internet, as opposed to telephone in 2002 and face-to-face
interviews in 1998, but mode effects on this item do not appear to be substantial.

mainland China and Taiwan’ as being a ‘critical threat’ to the vital interest of the
United States—about the same low proportion as the 18% that had done so in 2006.
In terms of the most dangerous likely conflict scenario with China, then, a large
majority of Americans oppose the United States using military force.51 The public
opposition cuts across nearly all social groups, even though regression analyses
indicate that certain individual characteristics do affect opinions: being male,
Hispanic, or from the South or West (as opposed to the Midwest) leads to a little more
willingness to use US troops to defend Taiwan, whereas—once various attitudes are
controlled for—being older contributes to opposition (see Table 2).
Multivariate regression analyses indicate that defense of Taiwan is seen more as an
altruistic or humanitarian project to benefit the Taiwanese than as a measure to
protect the national interests of the United States. As we noted, only a small, 19%
minority of Americans see conflict between China and Taiwan as posing a critical
threat to the vital interest of the United States. Even those who do perceive such a
critical threat show only moderately increased willingness to use US troops. About
equally important in fostering support for troop use is ‘active part’ internationalism,
which has a strong altruistic component. Much more important is embrace of general
humanitarian goals (see Table 2). On the other hand, endorsement of cooperation
51. On this and a number of other matters the American people disagree with many US foreign policy elites and
decision makers. See Benjamin I. Page and Jason Barabas, ‘Foreign policy gaps between citizens and leaders’,
International Studies Quarterly 44(3), (2000), pp. 339 –364; Benjamin I. Page with Marshall M. Bouton, The Foreign
Policy Disconnect: What Americans Want from Our Leaders but Don’t Get (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago
Press, 2006), ch. 7.


Table 2. What affects favoring US troop use if China invaded Taiwan?

Independent variable I II III IV

Hispanic 0.13* 0.23** 0.22** 0.21**

Northeastern 0.10 þ n.s. n.s. n.s.
Southern 0.15** 0.12* 0.11* 0.10*
Western 0.13* n.s. n.s. 0.10 þ
Male 0.19** 0.17** 0.17** 0.15**
Age n.s. 20.15* 20.19* 20.18*
Income level n.s. n.s. n.s. n.s.
Education level n.s. n.s. n.s. n.s.
Conservatism 0.20 þ n.s. n.s.
Republican party loyalty n.s. n.s. n.s.
‘Active part’ internationalism 0.22** 0.19** 0.12**
Threat of China power n.s. n.s.
Downloaded By: [University of Groningen] At: 10:17 12 March 2011

Threat of China– Taiwan conflict 0.26** 0.19*

Humanitarian goals 0.44**
Cooperation goals 20.23**
Security threats (non-China-specific) n.s.
Security goals (non-China-specific) n.s.
Domestic welfare goals n.s.
R 0.290 0.399 0.438 0.477
Adj. R-squared 0.066 0.136 0.167 0.196
DF 658 603 590 589

Notes: þp , 0.10; *p , 0.05; **p , 0.01.

Source: 2008 CCGA US general public survey.
Entries are unstandardized OLS regression coefficients, with all variables rescaled to the 0 – 1
range. Thirteen demographic variables were included in all regressions; except as noted, only those
with significant coefficients are shown. All attitudinal variables included in regressions are
displayed. Dependent variable: ‘There has been some discussion about the circumstances that
might justify using US troops in other parts of the world. Please give your opinion about some
situations. Would you favor [1] or oppose [0] the use of US troops . . . if China invaded Taiwan?’.

goals considerably decreases public willingness to defend Taiwan, presumably

because the ‘US troops’ question implies unilateral action, but our cooperation
measure is explicitly multilateral (including such items as ‘strengthening the UN’).

8. Engagement and cooperation, not conflict

More broadly, when Americans are asked, ‘in dealing with the rise of China’s power’,
whether the US should ‘undertake friendly cooperation and engagement with China’
or should ‘actively work to limit the growth of China’s power’, large majorities
pick friendly cooperation and engagement. According to CCGA surveys, nearly
two-thirds did so in both 2006 (65%) and 2008 (64%).
The sentiment in favor of friendly cooperation and engagement is shared across
nearly all social, demographic, and even political groups in the United States.
Majorities of men (71%), women (62%), the young (64%), the old (64%), blacks
(59%), whites (70%), Hispanics (54%), high-income (73%) and low-income (59%)


All Americans 64

Democrats 72
Republicans 62
Independents 58

Highly educated 82
Little educated 49. 6

High income 73
Low income 59

Whites 70
Blacks 59
Hispanics 54
Downloaded By: [University of Groningen] At: 10:17 12 March 2011

Old 64
Young 64

Men 71
Women 62
Figure 6. Support for friendly cooperation and engagement with China.
Note: Highly educated, bachelor’s degree and above; little-educated, less than high school.
High income, above US$100,000; low income, less than US$35,000. Old, over 60;
young, 18 – 29.
Source: 2008 CCGA. Question wording: ‘In dealing with the rise of China’s power, do you
think the US should undertake friendly cooperation and engagement with China, or
actively work to limit the growth of China’s power?’.

earners, and the highly educated (82%)—along with a near majority of the little-
educated (49.6%)—and even majorities of Democrats (72%), Republicans (62%),
and Independents (58%), all said in 2008 that the US should deal with the rise of
China’s power by cooperation and engagement rather than actively working to limit
that rise (see Figure 6).
To look at it from another angle, multivariate regression analyses show that in this
case—as in most other aspects of foreign policy—personal and social characteristics
do not have a great deal of effect on Americans’ opinions, either independently or all
together. Being male or married or having more formal education does lead people
toward favoring cooperation and engagement with China, whereas being an
Evangelical Christian leads people to favor actively working to limit China’s rise.
And the education effect is fairly substantial. This apparently reflects something other
than higher information levels; when we added an information item to regressions its
coefficient was not significant;52 but our 13 demographic factors taken together could
only account for 7% of the variance in opinions (see Table 3).
Ideological factors are somewhat more important here than usual. Being an
‘active part’ internationalist contributes a bit to favoring cooperation and engagement
with China, while being a self-identified conservative leads fairly strongly toward
favoring active work to limit China’s rise. Again, however, the most important
52. We measured information levels by using responses to a question about whether China loans more money to
the United States (correct), the two loan about the same amount to each other (wrong), or the United States loans more
to China (badly wrong) to form a simple linear scale.


Table 3. Influences on favoring cooperation and engagement with China

Independent variable I II III IV

Catholic 0.09* 0.10* n.s. n.s.

Evangelical 2 0.07þ n.s. n.s. n.s.
Western 0.10þ 0.11þ n.s. n.s.
Male 0.09* 0.08* 0.08* 0.09*
Married 0.12** 0.13** 0.13** 0.13**
Income level n.s. n.s. n.s. n.s.
Education level 0.31** 0.34** 0.28** 0.26**
Conservative 2 0.27* 2 0.27* 2 0.26*
Republican n.s. n.s. n.s.
Internationalist 0.09* 0.13** 0.11*
Threat of China power 2 0.36** 20.41**
Threat of conflict over Taiwan n.s. n.s.
Downloaded By: [University of Groningen] At: 10:17 12 March 2011

Threat of low-wage economic competition n.s. n.s.

Security threats (non-China-specific) 0.41**
Security goals n.s.
Humanitarian goals n.s.
Cooperation goals n.s.
Domestic welfare goals n.s.
R 0.297 0.352 0.415 0.437
Adjusted R-squared 0.071 0.101 0.146 0.159
Degrees of freedom 685 637 623 621

Notes: þp , 0.10; *p , 0.05; **p , 0.01.

Source: 2008 CCGA US general public survey.
Entries are unstandardized OLS regression coefficients, with all variables rescaled to the 0 – 1
range. Thirteen demographic independent variables were included in all regressions; except as
noted, only those with significant coefficients are shown in the table. All attitudinal variables
that were included in the regressions are shown.
Dependent variable: ‘In dealing with the rise of China’s power, do you think the US should
undertake friendly cooperation and engagement with China [1] or actively work to limit the
growth of China’s power [0]?’.

factors are more specific attitudes. In ‘purposive-belief-system’ fashion, perceptions

of threat from the rise of China lead to support for efforts to limit that rise,53 but
perceptions of non-China-specific security threats (from international terrorism,
nuclear proliferation and the like) lead to greater willingness to cooperate and engage
with China, presumably because China has been an ally against terrorism and
proliferation and/or because a focus on limiting China would divert energy and
resources from these other matters (see Table 3).
In any case, the main point is that about two-thirds of Americans favor cooperation
and peaceful engagement with China, rather than actively working to limit China’s
This general sentiment in favor of cooperation with China is backed up by more
specific policy preferences. In 2006, for example, majorities of Americans told the
CCGA it is ‘very important’ that the US, China, and India ‘work together’ on several
issues—‘stopping the spread of nuclear weapons to new countries in Asia’ (67%),
53. For the logic of instrumentally oriented ‘purposive believe systems’, and evidence of their prevalence in the
mass public, see Page with Bouton, The Foreign Policy Disconnect.


‘reducing competition over vital energy resources like oil and gas’ (58%), and
‘reducing greenhouse gas emissions’ (53%). Only minorities thought it was very
important to work on expanding trade (34%), resolving conflicts in Asia (31%), or
raising the standard of living in Asian nations (27%), but large majorities thought
cooperation in these areas was at least ‘somewhat important’, as opposed to ‘not very
In past CCGA surveys, large majorities of Americans have favored having
diplomatic relations with China: 75% favored (only 17% opposed) diplomatic
relations in 2004; 80% favored them in 2002. Large majorities have favored engaging
in trade with China, promoting more student exchanges and tourism, and the like.
Despite various tensions in the US – China relationship, then, and despite concern
over China’s potential military power, large majorities of Americans want to avoid
conflict and want to pursue peaceful engagement with China. Most Americans favor
Downloaded By: [University of Groningen] At: 10:17 12 March 2011

some degree of ‘off-shore balancing’ of the sort advocated by IR realists, but few
would be willing to commit US troops to containment of China. Most embrace a view
more like that of neo-liberals, focusing on the possibility of cooperative relations.54

9. Conclusion
‘The rise of China, if it continues, may be the most important trend in the world for the
next century’, declared Nicholas Kristof in a Foreign Affairs article published in 1997:
‘When historians one hundred years hence write about our time, they may well
conclude that the most significant development was the emergence of a vigorous
market economy—and army—in the most populous country of the world’.55 Since
then, the rise of China has attracted considerable attention from American
policymakers, scholars, and media pundits; yet in the ongoing debate about how to
deal with a rising China, the views of the American people have been largely neglected.
We have seen that Americans are increasingly aware of the rapid rises in China’s
economic strength, geopolitical influence, and military capability. Many Americans
have reacted with anxiety and apprehension, especially over China’s potential to
emerge as a military superpower, yet most Americans oppose efforts to limit China’s
rise. The concrete policy responses favored by majorities are rather mild. A large
majority of Americans want to avoid conflict, favoring cooperation and engagement
with China.
When it comes to China’s world influence and military capabilities many
Americans are concerned. The average American is not very favorably impressed by
China’s diplomatic activities and would prefer that China have less rather than more
influence in the world. Most would like the United States to remain the world’s only
superpower, and a substantial minority of Americans think that the development of
China as a world power constitutes a ‘critical threat’ to the vital interest of the United
States. There is support for using alliances with Japan and India to balance China, yet
few Americans want to ‘actively work’ to limit the rise of China, and even fewer
54. For evidence across a wide range of foreign policies that Americans’ collective preferences generally follow a
neo-liberal configuration (favoring diplomacy, multilateral cooperation, international treaties and agreements and the
like), see Ibid.
55. Nicholas D. Kristof, ‘The rise of China’, Foreign Affairs 72(5), (1997), p. 59.


seem interested in committing US armed forces to such an endeavor. A large majority

of Americans oppose using US troops if China were to invade Taiwan.
What do these findings suggest about the future of US – China relations?
One clear implication is that the current opinions of American citizens do not pose
any serious barrier to friendly and cooperative relations with China.56 Friendly
relations with other countries can and do exist without the warmth of feelings that
Americans express toward, say, Canada or Great Britain. Lukewarm can be warm
enough; and none of the American public’s policy preferences seem especially
problematic. Indeed, if US policymakers were to enact and implement every China-
related policy favored by a majority of Americans, peaceful and friendly relations
between the two countries should be perfectly feasible. Most Americans are prepared
to live peacefully and cooperatively with the Chinese dragon.
Downloaded By: [University of Groningen] At: 10:17 12 March 2011

56. We emphasize ‘current’ opinions because we are under no illusion that public opinion is impervious to
change. In response to events, media coverage, or government manipulation, public opinion can change swiftly and
significantly. The Tiananmen Incident illustrates the powerful impact of a media-reported event on US public
opinion. Favorable ratings of China dropped overnight from a record high of 72% to a record low of 34%. Gallup
Poll, (25 April 2009), available at:¼1627 (accessed 25 April 2009). An
account of how a ‘rational public’ has responded to outside events is offered in Benjamin I. Page and Robert
Y. Shapiro, The Rational Public: Fifty Years of Trends in Americans’ Policy Preferences (Chicago, IL: University of
Chicago Press, 1992).