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WASHINGTON, Sep 18 2012 (IPS) - The U.S. public is more concerned about the rise of China – particularly as an economic power – than are elite sectors, including government officials, business leaders, scholars and media figures, according to a major new survey released here Tuesday by several U.S. think tanks.
And while the great majority of both the public (66 percent) and U.S. elites (around 80 percent) see China as more of a “competitor” than an “enemy”, about two-thirds of both groups believe that the Asian giant can either be trusted “not too much” or “not at all,” according to the poll.
Among the elite sectors, retired U.S. military personnel expressed the most critical views of China, with about half of respondents in that group complaining that President Barack Obama has not been tough enough in dealing with Beijing on a range of issues.
Among the general public, younger respondents were found to be more trusting about China and less inclined to describe Beijing as an “enemy” compared to other age groups.
The poll results were released as China has emerged as one of the few foreign-policy issues that could impact the presidential race between Obama and his Republican challenger, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, whose campaign has run a series of television ads assailing the White House for allegedly failing to more aggressively challenge Beijing on its trade and currency practices.
Seemingly in response, the administration Monday filed a major new trade case at the World Trade Organisation (WTO) that charged Beijing with unfairly subsidising exports of cars and auto parts while the US Trade Representative (USTR) suggested that Washington will soon renew tariffs on Chinese tires.
Both actions came while Obama was campaigning in Ohio, a critical swing state and a centre of both auto parts and tire manufacturing.
Obama has also been hammering away – with notable success, according to polls – on the alleged role played by Bain Capital, a management and investment firm directed by Romney, in outsourcing jobs in the U.S. to China and other countries since its founding in 1984.
The survey also comes amidst a steady growth in regional tensions over recent territorial claims by China in the South and East China Seas. U.S. Defence Secretary Leon Panetta is currently visiting China on a self-described mission to reduce growing hostility between Beijing and Tokyo, in particular.
But Panetta’s announcement Monday during a brief stay in Tokyo that the U.S. and Japan have agreed on the construction of a new U.S. anti-missile radar system in Japan is unlikely to be well received by a Chinese leadership that has complained increasingly over the past year that Washington is pursuing a containment strategy with some of Beijing’s neighbours directed against China.
The survey, which was sponsored by the Pew Research Center, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and the Kissinger Institute on China and the United States at the Wilson International Center for Scholars here, was based on interviews in May – that is, well before China had become a major issue in the presidential campaign – of more than 1,000 adult respondents living in all 50 states, as well as 305 web and telephone interviews of foreign-policy and national-security experts.
The latter group included 54 government officials; 52 retired military officers with ranks of colonel or captain or above; 74 business and trade leaders; 93 scholars, think tank staff, and non-governmental organisation (NGO) leaders; and 32 news media professionals.
According to the survey, the public views China primarily as an economic threat rather than a military one, with 59 percent of respondents saying Beijing’s economic strength concerns them the most, and only 28 percent citing military strength as their biggest concern about an emergent China.
Nonetheless, about a quarter of the public (26 percent) named China when asked what country represented the “greatest danger” to the U.S., more than any other country. By contrast, only 16 percent volunteered Iran, and 13 percent, North Korea. Iran was cited as the “greatest danger” by a plurality of government officials, business leaders, and news media professionals, while 50 percent of retired military respondents named China.
The survey found a big difference between the public and the elites on China’s economic impact on the U.S. More than three out of four public respondents said they regarded the large amount of U.S. debt held by China as a “very serious problem”; while seven in 10 put the loss of U.S. jobs to China in the same category.
While about half of the military and media respondents agreed that debt was a “very serious problem”, only one in five respondents in government and in universities and think tanks agreed. The gap was even greater between the elite sectors and the public on the jobs issue: an average of just under 20 percent of the elite groups considered it a “very serious problem”.
Asked whether they considered “China’s emergence as a world power” a major or minor threat to the U.S. or none at all, the public was markedly more concerned than all of the elite sectors except retired military officers.
More than half (52 percent) of the public respondents said they considered it a “major threat”, as did a 46-percent plurality of the military officers. Among the other elite groups, only about 30 percent said it was a “major threat”, while an average of about 56 percent called it a “minor threat”.
By contrast, a number of other scenarios, including international financial instability, Islamic extremist groups, and Iran’s nuclear programme were considered a “major threat” by more public and elite respondents, while political instability in Pakistan was generally considered a “major threat” by the largest percentage of the elite sectors.
The elites also considered building a “strong relationship with China” to be a substantially more important task than the public respondents. While 55 percent of the public respondents said it was “very important” to strengthen ties, the comparable percentages for the elite groups, including the retired military, were well into the eighties.
*Jim Lobe’s blog on U.S. foreign policy can be read at http://www.lobelog.com.
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