Dr. Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan
A new Pew Research Survey indicates that the US still continues to be perceived in positive light; that a conflict between China and its neighbours over territorial disputes is likely; and that despite contentions over territorial issues, China’s economic standing is considered good even among Asian countries. Asia thus presents interesting pointers about the attitude towards the US and China amidst efforts to find a balance between strategic and economic compulsions.
In global terms, across 43 of the 44 countries surveyed, a median of 65% have maintained a favourable outlook about the US and a median of 56% hold confidence in Obama to take the right step in international affairs. Obama’s standing, while still good, has come down from 2008/2009. Significant declines, owing to Obama’s overseas surveillance, happened in Germany, with the ratings coming down from 88% to 71% and in Brazil, bringing down the points from 69% in 2013 to 52%.china_1
Coming to Asia, one of the striking set of numbers relate to the rising Chinese power quotient and how that has the potential to translate into conflicts, particularly with the neighbours with whom China has border and territorial disputes with. It should be noted that most of the numbers from the survey have historical roots – past animosities and territorial disputes have had a determining say in how they perceive each other. Seven in ten interviewed in the Philippines, Japan, Vietnam, South Korea and India is concerned about the Chinese rising might. Interestingly, 62% of the Chinese themselves have similar concerns about the impact of a conflict.
Expectedly, on the likeability factor, China remains at a low in Japan at 7% and this is mutual given that only 8% Chinese like the Japanese. However, if one were to look at the general approach towards China, it is quite favourable. This is mostly due to the economic strengths of China that would accrue positive spin-offs for the regional and global economy at large. However, even on the question of economy, there is a majority still that see the US as the top economy – 55% in Asia, followed by 49% in Europe and 48% in Africa.
In general terms, China’s favourability quotient has remained at the highest in Pakistan at 78% followed by Bangladesh at 77%. China has also done well in Latin America despite the fact that the ratings have come down in Brazil and Argentina (-21 and -14 points respectively). Africa also seems to be cozying up to the Chinese. However, South Africa is split with 45% favouring and 40% having unfavourable views. China’s image, however, continues to get hit on account of its human rights records.
As far as the threat perception in the region is concerned, China is not looked upon favourably among the Vietnamese (74%), Japanese (68%) and Filipinos (58%), and the South Koreans (36%) remain most concerned about North Korea. The threat perception among Asian countries is also interesting because Pakistan at 38%, Chinese at 36%, Malaysians at 26%, and Indonesians at 25% cite Washington as the biggest threat. However, Indonesia sees the US as the greatest threat and ally.
Japan has had good favourability among Asian countries, except for Northeast Asia, which are again rooted in historical contexts. Japan has remained highly favourable among Thais at 81% and Filipinos 80%. A good number of respondents also have responded positively to the Japanese leadership’s ability to handle regional affairs responsibly. Abe’s ability to handle international affairs well is most appreciated in Vietnam (65%), followed by Malaysians (57%), Bangladesh (56%), Filipinos (55%), and Thais (53%). Most Indians and South Asian in general, surprisingly, did not have an opinion on Abe. This is because the Japanese influence on the economies of most countries in Asia has been quite high through the Japanese Overseas Development Aid (ODA).
People were also asked about the Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s ability to handle global affairs responsibly, and in the Asian context, South Koreans gave the highest points at 57%, followed by Bangladesh at 56%, Malaysia at 54%, and Thailand at 54%. Xi fares quite poor in Japan at 6% and India at 13%. Among the Americans, only 28% recorded confidence in Xi. Despite the hopes on and expectations from a new leadership, the Chinese aggressive posturing has gone to shape this perception about Xi. This is evident in the Japanese lack of confidence at 87%.
In its neighbourhood, India’s favourability has recorded highest among Bangladeshis at 70%, followed by Vietnamese at 67%, Japan at 63%, and Indonesia at 62%. India figures most unfavourably with Pakistan at 13%.
What do these figures mean? The Pew Survey has not thrown any surprises. These figures have only confirmed the already well-known story lines about the US, China, Japan and India. The figures also represent the dilemma present in most world capitals – while there is wariness about the overall rising of Chinese power quotient, countries also see gains in interacting with them in economic terms. One of the questions in the survey as to whether China will surpass the US a superpower in the future is absurd because the obvious answer is yes. China will overtake at some stage but this question without a timeframe is meaningless.
(Dr. Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan is a Senior Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. She served at the National Security Council Secretariat, Government of India from 2003 to 2007.)