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Bruce Stokes: US voters are suspicious of China

Asia-related issues, such as views on China, trade, and the U.S. military's role in the region, have figured prominently in this year's U.S. presidential primary campaign but most U.S. voters still believe that Europe is more important, according to a new survey by the Pew Research Center. 

Presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump has called for a 45% tariff on U.S. imports from China. Both he and the two remaining Democratic presidential candidates -- Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders -- have criticized the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the recently negotiated U.S. trade deal with 11 Pacific Rim nations. Trump has called for Tokyo to bear more of its own defense burden and even suggested Japan and South Korea might want to acquire their own nuclear weapons.

While such concerns are unlikely to be priorities for Americans as they cast their ballots, their views may nevertheless influence the electorate, especially because supporters of the various candidates hold differing views on issues of importance to Asia.

Much has been made in recent years about a U.S. "pivot to Asia". It is a foreign policy sound bite that resonates with many Asians, but it is not a sentiment widely shared by American voters, according to the Pew research. Just over three in ten Americans believe that strong political, economic and military ties with Asia are the most important for the United States. Roughly half say Europe is more important.

There is no significant difference in views of Asia between Republicans and Democrats or between supporters of the main candidates. All see Europe as more important.

However, there is a generation gap that may foreshadow a shift in public opinion in the future. A larger share of people aged 18 to 29 (41%) say Asia is more important, compared with only 23% of those aged 65 and older.

Americans generally take a dim view of China. More than half (54%) voiced an unfavorable opinion, in a 2015 Pew Research Center survey, with only 37% seeing the Middle Kingdom in a positive light.

Such anti-China views may reflect the fact that half of Americans see China's emergence as a world power as a major threat to the wellbeing of the United States. Again there is a significant generation gap: 63% of older Americans voice such views, compared with only 40% of millennials. There are also ideological and partisan differences in the perception of a China menace. A majority of conservative Republicans (60%) classify China as a major threat, but only 34% of liberal Democrats agree.

Trade has been the focal point of much of the China criticism in the 2016 campaign. In 2015 the United States ran a $366 billion merchandise trade deficit with China, its largest bilateral imbalance by far. Americans think that is unfair. In a 2015 Pew Research Center survey, only 37% of Americans thought that China had a fair trade policy.

Similarly, all leading candidates have decried TPP. Among Americans registered to vote, less than half (47%) say such free trade deals have been a good thing for the nation, according to a recent Pew Research Center survey.

Such sentiment is more positive than negative among Democratic and Democratic-leaning Independents (56% good thing vs. 34% bad thing). Republican and Republican-leaning Independents are more negative (38% good thing vs. 53% bad thing). Among registered Republican voters, roughly two-thirds of Trump supporters believe trade deals have been a bad thing for the U.S. 

Supporters of both Clinton and Sanders see trade agreements in a positive light, despite their candidates' criticism of TPP. By a 58% to 31% margin, more Clinton supporters among registered Democrats say free trade agreements have been a good thing than a bad thing for the U.S. Views among Democratic backers of Sanders are similar (55% good thing vs. 38% bad thing).

On Asian security issues, the Obama administration has committed the U.S. to rebalance military resources to the Asia-Pacific region. But Americans are ambivalent as to whether a greater military presence in Asia is positive, according to a 2015 Pew Research Center survey. A majority of Republicans (58%) think such a rebalancing is a good idea. But only 42% of Democrats support it. Americans ages 50 and older (51%) are more supportive of the security pivot than those ages 18 to 29 (37%).

Any such rebalancing could prove costly. More American military spending is a highly partisan issue in the United States. Roughly six in ten Republicans support increasing outlays on national defense. Only two in ten Democrats agree. Trump supporters are among the most enthusiastic, while Sanders backers are the least enthused.

But the American public is divided over whether Japan should play a more active military role in helping to maintain peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region, as Trump has argued it should, according to a 2015 Pew Research Center survey. Only 47% of Americans would like to see Tokyo take a more active role and 43% would prefer that Japan limit its role.

Asia policy will not be the pivotal issue in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. But voters' views on China, trade, defense burden-sharing and other Asia-related issues will inform their judgment of the candidates. And public opinion on these issues is unlikely to change come election day, forming the backdrop for the Asian policy of whoever is the next American president.

Bruce Stokes is director of global economic attitudes at the Pew Research Center.

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