Americans fear China over Russia

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While a war of words dominated headlines after a meeting with Chinese officials in Alaska, it is time for a conversation about where things go from here. A new national security strategy document released from the White House focuses on the rivalry with an “assertive and authoritarian” China as the one competitor of the United States capable of mounting a “sustained challenge to a stable and open international system.” As we look toward next steps with China, administration officials should take strength from the fact that Americans support a policy that confronts Beijing.

A recent survey finds a growing consensus on China among Americans. A public opinion poll commissioned by the Ronald Reagan Institute shows that a strong plurality of Americans at almost 40 percent regard China, for the first time ever, as the country posing the greatest threat to the United States. This is more than double the number who named Russia, which landed at number two on the list, as their greatest foreign fear.

Nearly a decade after President Obama pivoted to Asia, public opinion has shifted. The same survey a few years ago found 20 percent named China as the greatest threat with Russia at the top with 30 percent. Americans also have a sense of how they want the United States to deal with China. Broad bipartisan majorities support maintaining overseas bases to deter threats and respond to events. More Americans now believe our military presence should be focused in Asia rather than the Middle East.

There is strong support for the renewed focus on allies and partners. Indo Pacific countries most critical to our competition with China are viewed favorably, with a healthy majority identifying Japan, Taiwan, Australia, and South Korea as allies. When it comes to cost burdens, more Americans believe that our allies in the Indo Pacific do their “fair share” compared with our European allies in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Seoul indicated earlier this month that it will increase its share of the cost of stationing our military in South Korea by more than 10 percent.

True to the very legacy of President Reagan, the survey also reveals that Americans are concerned about Chinese human rights violations. In light of the brutal crackdown in Hong Kong along with the genocide against the Uyghur people in China, it is not hard to understand why. More than 70 percent of Americans want the United States to back the democracy movement in Hong Kong even if it angers officials in Beijing.

Yet concerns over China do not translate into a unified approach on how to engage the threat it poses. As President Biden seeks to collaborate with China on climate change, he must remember that just a very slim majority of Americans support the Paris Accord. Americans are divided on whether climate change is a national security threat. There is a highly partisan split as 75 percent of Democrats say that climate change is a national security threat compared with fewer than 25 percent of Republicans.

Americans know the full range of threats we face from China and support engagement and leadership in the region. Administration officials should channel their concerns and, together with our allies and partners in the region, lead the world from a position of strength. As President Reagan once declared, “War comes not when the forces of freedom are strong but when they are weak. It is then that tyrants are tempted.”

Roger Zakheim is the Washington director for the Ronald Reagan Institute. Rachel Hoff serves as the policy director with the Ronald Reagan Institute.

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