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Posted : 2013-08-09 16:11
Updated : 2013-08-09 16:11

US challenged by China in global poll

By John J. Metzler

UNITED NATIONS ― Perceptions often govern attitudes. Indeed the image of the United States worldwide is increasingly challenged by China in a number of key areas as Beijing asserts itself as on the international stage as an economic and political player. This shifting balance of power toward the People's Republic of China, or at least the perception, is especially pronounced in Africa and Latin America and significantly even among Americans.

Globally while the U.S. holds a 63 percent favorability rating and 30 percent unfavorable, the PRC now has a 50 percent favorability standing with 36 percent unfavorable. Yet regionally, China holds a 72 percent favorability rating in Africa, 58 percent in Latin America and Asia, but has slipped to 43 percent in Europe and 37 percent in the U.S.

Those are among the conclusions in a new poll taken by the Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan group who surveyed 38,000 people in 39 countries to take the global pulse of attitudes to both the U.S. and to the People's Republic of China.

Much of the survey reflects global attitudes toward China's economic and commercial rise, as respondents are split over whether the PRC shall replace the U.S. as the world's leading superpower. Whether China will "replace the U.S. as the leading superpower," the results are evenly split with 33 percent saying China will "eventually" replace the U.S., 33 percent asserting "never" and 13 percent claiming the PRC "already has.''

Dangerously on the political front, mutual distrust between citizens of the U.S. and mainland China has grown during the Obama presidency. As mentioned 37 percent of Americans view the PRC favorably (down from 51 percent two years ago) whereas 40 percent of Chinese see America positively. In 2010 after a visit to China by President Obama, 58 percent of Chinese held a favorable view of the U.S. Fewer than a third of Chinese see their relationship with America as "cooperative," a precipitous slip from 68 percent a few years ago. Trade tensions as well as military and human rights issues are reflected in these views.

Countries in China's geographic neighborhood view the mainland with increasing trepidation. Overwhelming numbers of Japanese 96 percent, and South Koreans 91 percent, and strong majorities of Australians 71 percent and Filipinos 68 percent view China's expanding military capabilities as negative. Conversely almost two-thirds of Pakistanis see China's military as positive.

Regional territorial disputes score significant concerns; the Diaoyutai/ Senkaku islands and contested atolls in the Spratley Islands among them. According to the Pew poll,

"Strong majorities in the Philippines (90 percent), Japan (82 percent), South Korea (77 percent), and Indonesia (62 percent) think that such territorial disputes with China are a big problem for their country."

As a counterweight to the geopolitical focus, there are undeniable inroads of Chinese "soft power" as viewed by science and technology. According to PEW, "China's greatest global asset in the future may be its appeal among young adults around the world…young people are significantly more likely than older people to look favorably on China." This is evidenced everywhere, even in the U.S. where 57 percent of those aged between 18 and 29 have a positive opinion of China, as compared with just 27 percent among people 50 or older.

Naturally this reflects perceptions. Think for a moment that this group view toward China is governed by images of "economic change, Markets over Marxism, Chinese exports.'' Thus the template for the younger generation is largely a mercantile product of China's post-1978 reforms. The Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989 is largely forgotten. Those young people are focused on the New China, with the occasional hiccup of trade and human rights frictions.

Conversely, the older generation certainly knows of China's impressive economic reforms also recalls communist China's dictatorship with its communes, labor camps, censorship, Cultural Revolution and the cult of Mao. This historic context contrasts with Beijing's new socio/economic narrative.

Importantly there's still global unease over the PRC's human rights practices. According to Pew, "One of the major challenges for China's global image is that few believe the Chinese government respects the personal freedoms of its people." Such sentiments are refuted by the 56 percent of Chinese who claim their country should be more respected.

Indeed, but Beijing must earn that respect too.

John J. Metzler is a United Nations correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He is the author of ''Transatlantic Divide USA/Euroland Rift?''

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