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Americans sense China eclipsing U.S. economically and say protecting U.S. jobs should be priority, poll finds

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 10/7/2021 Scott Clement, Dan Balz
U.S. officials leave talks with top China officials on Oct. 6 in Zurich Airport in Switzerland. © Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images U.S. officials leave talks with top China officials on Oct. 6 in Zurich Airport in Switzerland.

As competition between the United States and China intensifies, more Americans now say the Asian country is more powerful economically, a reversal from two years ago when a plurality said the United States had an economic advantage, according to a survey released Thursday by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.

The nationwide survey also found that protecting U.S. jobs ranks ahead of other American foreign policy priorities such as fighting global pandemics, combating international terrorism and limiting climate change. But a majority do not see current policies as benefiting working-class or middle-class Americans. Instead, large majorities said that U.S. foreign policies help large companies, wealthy Americans, the government and the military.

Concerns about China’s economic prowess and the perceived priorities of U.S. foreign policy represent challenges for President Biden and his senior advisers, who have said they will orient their international policies with an eye to aiding working families. One part of this involves confronting China for alleged trade abuses, currency practices and other matters.

The July Chicago Council poll found 40 percent saying China is currently stronger in its economic power, compared with 27 percent who said the United States was stronger and 31 percent who said the nations are about equal. By contrast, the group’s 2019 survey found Americans saying the United States was stronger by a 38 percent to 31 percent margin, with 29 percent saying the two were about equal.

Gallup polls found a similar change in views of the balance of economic power between the two nations this past February. Gallup saw a 13-point decline in the share of Americans saying the United States was the strongest nation economically compared with 2020, while China saw an 11-point increase over the same period.

This is not the first time, however, that Americans have seen China’s economic power as surpassing that of the United States; China was seen as the strongest economy in polls by both Gallup and the Chicago Council from 2011 to 2016.

Surveys by the Pew Research Center show a different pattern, with a summer 2020 survey showing 52 percent of Americans seeing the United States as the “world’s leading economic power,” compared with 32 percent who chose China, an advantage the United States has held in Pew surveys since 2015. That survey also found pluralities or majorities of nine Western European countries saw China as the world’s economic leader, while majorities in Japan and South Korea chose the United States.

Militarily, the Chicago Council poll found a decline in the share of Americans saying the United States is stronger than China, falling from 58 percent in 2019 to 46 percent this year. A far-smaller 18 percent believed China has a military advantage, though 35 percent believed the countries possess equal strength.

The survey was conducted before the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, which included a chaotic evacuation of Americans and U.S. allies after the Taliban captured Kabul. A Washington Post-ABC News poll in early September found 60 percent of Americans disapproved of Biden’s handling of that situation.


Video: Making Sense of China’s Economy (Bloomberg)

U.S. policy toward China began to shift into a more confrontational stance during the Trump administration and continues to evolve under Biden. On the military front, the United States recently entered into an agreement with the United Kingdom and Australia to supply the Australians with nuclear-powered submarines.

Biden has spoken repeatedly about what he sees as a global competition between democracy and authoritarianism, with China cited as a prime example of the latter. He has pointed to his robust domestic policy agenda, now being debated in Congress, as an opportunity to show the world that democracies can and will do more to lift up their middle classes than authoritarian nations.

Many polls have found Americans growing more critical of China in recent years, including a February Pew Research Center survey finding 67 percent had negative feelings toward the country, up from 46 percent in 2018. The Chicago Council poll suggests Americans favor a more punitive approach to China, particularly on trade.

Asked about international trade in general, majorities of Americans said it is good for the economy, for consumers like them and for creating jobs. Yet when asked about China, 58 percent said trade with the nation does more to weaken U.S. national security, up sharply from 33 percent who said this in 2019.

A 57 percent majority said they support significantly reducing trade between the United States and China, even if it leads to greater costs for American consumers. Support for increasing tariffs on products from China has grown to 62 percent this year, up from 55 percent in 2020 and 47 percent supporting a similar policy in 2019, one year after President Donald Trump began increasing tariffs on Chinese imports.

Various surveys suggest Americans have grown more supportive of a hard-line approach toward working with China for a variety of reasons, including the way the Chinese handled the coronavirus pandemic. Still, during the Trump administration, there was public skepticism about the benefits of a trade war with China.

On the subject of who benefits from U.S. foreign policy, the Chicago Council poll found it is widely seen as benefiting powerful interests as opposed to ordinary Americans. Roughly 9 in 10 Americans said the nation’s foreign policy benefits large companies, wealthy Americans and the U.S. government, and 8 in 10 said it benefits the U.S. military. Yet just about 4 in 10 said it benefits middle-class Americans (44 percent), working-class Americans (42 percent) or small companies (38 percent).

There is bipartisan skepticism about whether America’s actions in international affairs benefit workers, with fewer than half of Democrats (46 percent), Republicans (45 percent) or independents (38 percent) saying working-class Americans benefit from U.S. foreign policy.

The poll also found bipartisan support for protecting U.S. workers. A 79 percent majority said protecting the jobs of American workers is a “very important” foreign policy goal, including 89 percent of Republicans, 76 percent of independents and 72 percent of Democrats.

Preventing cyberattacks ranks even higher, with 83 percent saying it is a very important foreign policy goal. Strong majorities of Democrats and Republicans share this view. A 66 percent majority said fighting international terrorism is very important, and the same percentage said this for preventing and combating global pandemics.

A smaller 54 percent majority said limiting climate change was a very important foreign policy goal, albeit up from 40 percent who said this in 2016. And 50 percent said they see controlling and reducing illegal immigration as a foreign policy priority, up from 42 percent in 2018. Partisans divided sharply on both questions, with Republicans far more likely to say illegal immigration is a priority while Democrats were more apt to put a higher premium on climate change.

The Chicago Council survey was conducted online July 7-26, 2021, among 2,086 adults nationwide. The sample was drawn through Ipsos’s KnowledgePanel, an ongoing survey panel recruited through random sampling of U.S. households. The margin of sampling error for overall results is plus or minus 2.3 percentage points.

Emily Guskin and William Bishop contributed to this report.

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