Election 2024: What Americans Think About China
from The Water's Edge and Renewing America

Election 2024: What Americans Think About China

Each Friday, I look at what the presidential contenders are saying about foreign policy. This week: What Americans think about China.
President Joe Biden and President Xi Jinping walk on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit on November 15, 2023.
President Joe Biden and President Xi Jinping walk on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit on November 15, 2023. Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

President Joe Biden met with Chinese President Xi Jinping this week in Woodside, California, in advance of the 2023 APEC Economic Leaders’ Forum. The conversation apparently went reasonably well. Xi agreed to resume military-to-military communications that Beijing suspended in the wake of then-U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan last year. He also agreed that China would limit the sale of the pre-cursor chemicals that are used to make fentanyl.

These agreements didn’t constitute a reset of U.S.-Chinese relations or put so-called guardrails on tensions between the two great powers. Biden made a point after the meeting ended to say he still considered Xi “a dictator,” a statement that angered the Chinese delegation. Biden also stressed that the United States continues to have “real differences with Beijing.” That is a sentiment all the Republican presidential contenders share. The only difference is that they argue that Biden hasn’t been tough enough in standing up to China, a failing they promise to remedy.

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But what does the American public think about relations with China? The picture is more mixed than the U.S. political debate might suggest. To be sure, warm feelings for China have evaporated. Gallup found last March that a record-low 15 percent of Americans view China favorably. As recently as 2018 that number was 53 percent. Put differently, 84 percent of Americans today view China either “mostly unfavorably” or “very unfavorably.” A Chicago Council on Global Affairs poll conducted in September found the same sentiment: nearly three-in-five Americans see China as a critical threat to U.S. vital interests. While there are some partisan differences in terms of concern about China—Republicans (71 percent) are more worried than Democrats (52 percent) and Independents (53 percent)—a majority of all three political groupings see China as a threat.

These numbers don’t mean, however, that Americans are spoiling for a military confrontation with China. Gallup recently found that less than one percent of those surveyed identified the “situation with China” as the most important problem facing the United States. When the Chicago Council asked respondents what concerned them most about China, just 20 percent said “China’s military power.” Marginally more respondents said “China’s economic power,” “China’s communist political system,” or “China’s policies on human rights.” Likewise, when asked where the U.S. government has come up short in challenging China, far more Americans say “theft of U.S. intellectual property” (65 percent), “China’s surveillance against” the United States (62 percent), and “China’s policies on human rights” (58 percent), than say “China’s territorial claims in Asia” (42 percent) or “China’s military power” (41 percent). And when it comes to defending Taiwan, polls results are ambiguous. Questions about whether the United States should aid Taiwan in the face of a Chinese invasion tend to find slight majority support; questions on whether the United States should send U.S. troops to defend Taiwan tend to find majority opposition.

So in a nutshell, American aren’t keen about China. But their concerns for the moment are primarily economic rather than military. The challenge for Biden now, and for whoever wins the presidency next November, is to make sure that those two concerns don’t flip in priority.

Campaign Update

Earlier this month, Sen. Joe Manchin abandoned his effort to hold onto his Senate seat from West Virginia. That doesn’t necessarily mean he is headed into retirement. He said this week that he "absolutely" intends to consider a run for the White House. He added that whether he joins the race, presumably as a third-party candidate, depends on whether he can "reinvigorate" the "moderate, sensible, commonsense middle." Manchin insists he would not be a spoiler: “I'm totally, absolutely scared to death that Donald Trump would become president again. I think we will lose democracy as we know it." Manchin isn’t likely to make a decision on whether he is in or out of the race until early March.

Manchin’s flirtation with a third-party run may be what some Americans are looking for. A majority of Americans say they would like to see more candidates join the race. More than seven out of ten people who identify as independents say they aren’t happy with their current set of choices. In contrast, two out of three Republicans say they are happy with the pool of potential nominees.

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Chris Christie came closer to qualifying for the fourth Republican presidential debate, which will be held in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, on Wednesday, December 6. The former New Jersey governor now has received contributions from at least 80,000 donors, one of the criteria required to reach the debate stage. He has yet to meet the other criterion, which is to register at least 6 percent in two national polls or 6 percent in one national poll and 6 percent in two early primary states. Donald Trump, Ron DeSantis, Nikki Haley, and Vivek Ramaswamy have already qualified, though there is no sign that the forty-fifth president is interested in participating. Christie and the two other Republican candidates still in the race—Doug Burgum and Asa Hutchinson—have until December 4 to meet the debate-qualifying criteria.

New Hampshire announced that it will hold its presidential primaries on January 23, eight days after the Iowa caucuses. The Democratic Party has said it will not recognize the delegates selected in any nominating event that takes place before the South Carolina primary on February 3.

One thing to keep in mind while looking ahead to next November is that the distribution of votes in the Electoral College has shifted because of the reapportionment required by the decennial census. Texas picked up two votes, while Colorado, Florida, North Carolina, Montana, and Oregon each picked up one. Conversely, West Virginia lost two votes, while California, Illinois, Michigan, New York, Ohio, and Pennsylvania each lost one. If the new electoral map had been in place in 2020, Biden still would have won. However, his margin of victory over Trump would have shrunk by six electoral votes.

The Candidates in Their Own Words

Christie visited Israel this week, making him the first Republican candidate to visit since Hamas’s attack on October 7. He used the visit to criticize Trump for failing to make a bolder effort to secure a lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians. “I don’t think he [Trump] was equipped to deal in a foreign policy way with a very difficult, if not impossible, issue.” The former New Jersey governor added: “I think he was looking for what would be relatively direct and easy scores because his view always was political.”

Ron DeSantis wrote an op-ed for the New York Post accusing Biden of failing to hold Beijing accountable for “China’s spy balloon, COVID-19, cyber breaches, military provocations or abuses against Uighurs.” DeSantis promised he would be tough on China, saying that “the threat China poses will require a government-wide response.” Among other things, he vowed to “halt the flow of American capital and technology that empowers China’s military,” to “create an Office of Economic Security and Competition to prioritize reshoring and friendshoring critical production,” and to “bar Chinese purchases of farmland and property near critical infrastructure.  

Nikki Haley pledged on Wednesday to pull the United States out of the UN Human Rights Council and the World Health Organization as well as defund the UN “as much as possible” if elected president. She said, however, that it wasn’t necessary to pull the United States out of the UN: “The only reason … you don’t get out of the UN is we’re one country of five that has a veto. And the number of things we were able to stop China, Russia, and Iran from doing with that veto matters.”

Speaking of the U.S. veto at the UN Security Council, Haley criticized Biden for not vetoing a resolution that called for a pause in the fighting between Israel and Hamas.

The South Carolina governor created a stir on Tuesday when she said that to protect national security social media companies should ban users from posting anonymously online. She argued that requiring people to verify who they are “gets rid of the Russian bots, the Iranian bots, and the Chinese bots."

Haley’s Republican rivals were quick to denounce the proposal. Vivek Ramaswamy tweeted that it as “disgusting.” Ron DeSantis called the idea “dangerous and unconstitutional,” noting that the Federalist Papers were written anonymously. The Florida governor’s campaign also went a step further and began selling t-shirts with Haley’s proposal printed on the front and the words “Always Watching” on the back. In the wake of these and other criticisms, Haley responded that she was only targeting foreign citizens: “I don’t mind anonymous American people having free speech; what I don’t like is anonymous Russians and Chinese and Iranians having free speech.” She did not explain how she would distinguish anonymous Americans posting from anonymous foreigners.

What the Pundits Are Saying

Jeffrey Friedman, an associate professor at Dartmouth College, wrote in Foreign Affairs that “over the last half century, candidates from both parties have frequently used aggressive foreign policies to demonstrate that they are strong enough to lead the United States. This hawkishness can help win elections. But it also produces a suite of policies—rising defense budgets, open-ended wars of choice, unilateral diplomacy—that are at odds with public opinion.”

Rich Lowry, the editor in chief of the conservative National Review, wrote a column for Politico arguing that “Ramaswamay is a clever person and a talented marketer. He, no doubt, has a future in conservative media somewhere. But his has been a fundamentally cynical campaign. The only consolation is that very few have been falling for it.”

The New York Times reviewed Donald Trump’s plans for revamping U.S. immigration policy should he return to office in January 2025. The Times concluded that the former president planned to “sharply restrict both legal and illegal immigration in a multitude of ways,” including by deporting millions of unauthorized immigrants.

The Campaign Schedule

The fourth Republican debate is nineteen days away (December 6, 2023).

The Iowa caucuses, the first nominating event on the election calendar, are fifty-nine days away (January 15, 2024).

The South Carolina primary, the first Democratic primary, is seventy-eight days away (February 3, 2024).

Election Day is 354 days away.

Sinet Adous assisted in the preparation of this post.

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