An important debate has cracked open about the future of the U.S.-China relationship. This was inevitable. But the debate, while increasingly contentious, has been limited to politicians, policymakers, and pundits, largely overlooking what most Americans think.
Worse, the failure to account for public opinion is happening at a moment when both sides of the U.S. political establishment are converging on a much sharper approach toward Beijing. In October alone, the Trump administration blacklisted several of China’s top artificial intelligence startups and imposed visa restrictions on Chinese officials linked to abuses in the western region of Xinjiang. The ongoing trade dialogue is likely to be tense, and expectations for a breakthrough remain low.
In fact, the mood in Washington toward Beijing has darkened over the last year or more. Even before the protests in Hong Kong took off in June, U.S.-China relations had become notably more adversarial. In today’s Washington, the stock description of China’s future as a “responsible stakeholder” has been replaced by “strategic competitor.” Talk of great-power competition is widespread. Former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson accurately captured the shift in mood at a speech in Singapore last year, saying “nearly everybody is arguing that the results of U.S.-China dialogue and engagement have been poor.”
Nor is Washington alone in its recent turn on U.S.-China relations. U.S. business leaders, too, have begun treating China with new caution. The recent standoff between Beijing and the National Basketball Association, and the resulting media reaction, is just the most recent example.
But the hostility and wariness readily apparent in the U.S. elite is so far absent among Americans overall. As polling by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs conducted earlier this year shows, two in three Americans (68%) say the United States should pursue a policy of friendly cooperation and engagement with China, rather than work to limit the growth of China’s power (31%). In fact, these shares have held relatively constant for more than a decade.
Trade is a key aspect of such cooperation for Americans. A solid majority of Americans (74%) support engaging in trade with China, including majorities of Republicans (65%), Democrats (82%), and Independents (73%). The benefits are seen not only as commercial: A majority of Americans (64%) say that U.S.-China trade does more to strengthen U.S. national security than to weaken it.
In part, American encouragement of trade with China is a spillover from robust support for international trade more broadly. Nearly nine in ten Americans (87%) now say that international trade is good for the U.S. economy, the highest recorded in Chicago Council Surveys since the question was first asked 2004. Additionally, eight in ten Americans (83%) believe international trade is good for American companies, a 25 percentage point increase from when the question was last asked in 2016.
Another reason Americans are not skittish about China is that they see the United States today as occupying a position of great strength. A majority of Americans (58%) see the United States as a stronger military power than China. In a notable shift from five years ago, more Americans also now say the U.S. economy is stronger than China’s economy, rather than saying the reverse or that the two are equal.
None of this is to say that American opinion will not change. For example, a February 2019 Chicago Council poll found that a majority of Americans now describe the United States and China as rivals (63%) rather than as partners (32%), a steep jump from just a year earlier (49% rivals). But across a range of questions covering the full gamut of the U.S.-China relationship, it is the recent continuity in American attitudes toward China that is most remarkable.
If the U.S.-China relationship is indeed at an inflection point, politicians and policymakers must make their case directly to the American people, convince them, and get their buy-in. At the same time, should U.S. public opinion hold steady, politicians may feel they have less latitude to take an aggressive stance toward Beijing. After all, a great strength of the American political system is elected leaders representing the will of the people.
Alexander Hitch is a research associate on the Global Economy and Global Cities teams at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. The views expressed are the author's own.