On Wednesday, October 5, 2016, the Pew Research Foundation released the results of a new poll gauging the Chinese perception of global threats and the US and its political process. And what do a majority of Chinese consider a greater threat to China than ISIS, Russia, climate change, cyber security, or the global economy?
You got it – the United States of America.
Fully 45% of respondents cited US power as a major threat to the interests of China, while an additional 38% labeled it a minor threat. And just over half of those surveyed view the US threat as an attempt to limit China’s rise to power, with nearly 60% citing territorial disputes, such as those involving the South China Sea (SCS), as likely or potential military flash points.
None of which is all that surprising. President Obama has staked much of his foreign policy legacy on the American ‘pivot to Asia’ and publicly warned Chinese President Xi Jinping about development of the Scarborough Shoals, which sit approximately 140 miles (230 km) from US forces stationed in the Philippines.
It was the Philippines, of course, an ally of the US, which received the favorable ruling from an international tribunal in The Hague that fueled much of the recent furor over China’s island-building in disputed waters of the SCS. While China does not recognize the tribunal’s authority on the matter, and did not make any attempt to defend itself in the deliberations, the US has publicly insisted that China must recognize and accept the ruling, even though the US has no territorial interest in the dispute.
The 2016 US presidential election, of course, hasn’t helped the US’s reputation among Chinese citizens. China has long been a whipping post for American politicians looking for a scapegoat for US economic woes.
The Chinese, however, generally understand that perspective. Well schooled and sensitive to all things financial, almost all Chinese dissent is economic in nature. Just as members of the Chinese military displaced by the current upgrade and re-purposing of the People’s Liberation Army, the largest military organization in the world, are currently protesting in Beijing, the Chinese take to the streets when they perceive their wallets have been slighted.
Part of the reason for that is that when you impact someone’s livelihood you’re impacting their family (something many American political and business leaders don’t seem to fully appreciate), and it’s difficult to overstate the Chinese commitment to family. It is the ultimate Confucian obligation.
And, of course, no one wants to be left behind. Living in the world’s second largest economy, its largest automotive market, and ground zero of the international luxury market, there is substantial face in keeping up with the Zhangs.
The trepidation toward the US exposed by the Pew poll, however, isn’t economic. I have yet to hear a single Chinese voice concern over China’s ability to compete with the US economically. Most Chinese appear confident that they can continue the economic miracle of the last 30 years so long as their efforts aren’t impeded by politics.
The projection of military and political strength, however, is a different animal than trade. What is one person’s noble enforcer can be another person’s bully. And whether fair or not, my experience is that many people in the international community view US involvement in things like the SCS dispute through the lens of the latter, not the former.
“Who asked you to be the world’s policeman?” To many Americans, of course, the answer to that question is a matter of destiny, responsibility, and/or belief in a digital and linear moral code. We can; therefore we must.
In places where the concept of right and wrong are more relative and less linear, however, that can be a specious argument. All too often, protection of international ‘rights’ looks a lot like meddling.
The current state of US politics, of course, isn’t helping America’s image abroad. Nor at home, for that matter. Most people are just hoping it ends soon. Our children are watching, after all.
The Chinese hold similar views. When asked to rate the presidential nominees of the two major American political parties, no more than 37% of those polled had even ‘some’ confidence in either candidate. More than a third voiced little or no confidence in the Democratic or Republican candidates individually.
Thankfully, the relative and inductively minded Chinese have no problem with duality. Despite concerns over the American ‘threat’, and their low opinion of our political candidates, 50% of the Chinese polled voiced a very or somewhat favorable opinion of the United States as a country. Go figure.
Americans used to be able to hold a duality of opinions. We could be wary of another country’s intent or political process but not hold it against the country or the people. Our political process, however, fueled by the incendiary nature of social media, seems to have eliminated our ability to hold impersonal opinions within a defined context.
Now you can only be for us or against us. Now it’s personal – always. That can be a very blunt instrument, indeed, when it comes to shaping the country’s foreign policy. Or, to quote my own father, “Be careful what you wish for.”
If the rest of the world starts thinking in the same digital way we may find ourselves more isolated than revered.
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