13.03.23 China Review

Domestic Foreign Policy: Biden will need to reckon with the fact that Americans largely perceive China as the greatest threat to US interests, not Russia

As the war in Ukraine continues to unfold and take new shape in many different political areas, in the US, it has been garnering increasing levels of attention due to the upcoming presidential election. 50% of US citizens consider America’s greatest enemy to be China, while only 32% would say the same about Russia. Democrats, however, are more inclined to see Russia as the more significant threat of the two, which means they are generally in support of providing Ukraine with more assistance. Republicans, on the other hand, believe that, by prioritising aid to Ukraine, the Biden administration has been directing attention away from the threat posed by China. Some independent, non-party voters also share this opinion. This means that over the next 18 months, the Biden administration may feel compelled to exercise more restraint in its approach to helping Ukraine.

According to Gallup's 2023 World Affairs poll, which was conducted in February, American residents view China, not Russia, as their country’s main enemy. Moreover, the approval rating of President Joe Biden’s Chinese policy is critically low. With the presidential race fast approaching, this issue may shift the US President’s attention towards foreign policy matters related to China, and, consequently, may lead to a reduction of further aid packages for Kyiv. 

According to a survey conducted by Gallup, half of American citizens currently consider China to be the US’s greatest enemy. They perceive the three greatest enemies as follows: China takes the lead over Russia (which comes in second place with 32% of the votes), and North Korea sits in third place with 7%. Back in 2020, this poll found that China and Russia were neck and neck for the title of America’s greatest threat, with each receiving around 22-23% of the votes. However, China has convincingly taken the lead, topping the polls for the past three years, despite the Russian full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

‘Which one country anywhere in the world do you consider to be the United States’ greatest enemy today?’ 2001–2023, % of respondents

The situation ends up being somewhat more complicated, however, if political affiliations are taken into account. Democrats tend to see Russia as the US’s greatest enemy (53%), with China ranking second (30%). Republicans, on the other hand, are far more united in their opinion, with 76% of GOP supporters considering China to be the country’s main issue, and only 12% naming Russia. Among respondents who do not affiliate themselves with either of the two main American political parties (which constitutes around a third of the population), China takes the lead with 56%, followed by Russia with 32%. 

The information is highly significant given the political climate within the US and against the backdrop of the upcoming US presidential election. According to another recent Gallup poll, President Biden’s approval rating stands at just 42% among survey participants. With regards to specific policies, the President's initiatives to combat the coronavirus received the highest level of approval (53%).  On the other hand, only 41% of respondents viewed his foreign policy positively, with 37% approving of his stance towards Russia and 32% approving of his China policy. Indeed, President Biden's foreign policies received the worst ratings of all the policy areas discussed. Democrats overwhelmingly support the President’s policies towards both China and Russia (64-66%), while Republicans vehemently disapprove of both. Among independent voters, 35% express approval of Biden's Russia policy and 29% approve of his China policy.

This balance of power will be an important issue for Biden, or any other Democratic Party presidential nominee, as some Republicans are pushing for a tougher stance towards China and view the focus on Ukraine as excessive. Independents, to some extent, share this view.

According to data from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, there has been a decline in American public support for aid to Ukraine. In May of last year, approval for the provision of aid stood at 60%, whereas this has now dropped to 48%. Journalist Peter Baker, writing for The New York Times, notes that the scepticism surrounding the provision of aid to Ukraine is growing among both Democrats and Republicans. At the same time, it continues to be much higher among Republicans; 40% of the GOP supporters surveyed believe that the US has already provided too much assistance to Ukraine, compared to just 15% of Democratic Party supporters.

To date, the US Congress has approved $1,123 billion in military, economic, humanitarian and other assistance to Ukraine. However, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, at the current rate of spending, these funds may be expected to run out by mid-July. Further funding will require approval from the House of Representatives, and since Republicans gained the majority in last year’s midterm elections, their support will be crucial.

Andrea Kendall-Taylor, a fellow at the Center for a New American Security, believes that ‘the longer the war goes on, the greater the risk that US resolve will weaken, no matter how much the President tries to convince Americans to stay the course.’ The frontrunners for the Republican presidential candidate have been openly calling for a reconsideration of the US’s role in the war in Ukraine. Former President Donald Trump accused Biden of putting the world ‘on the verge of World War III’, while Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has said that it is not in American interests to participate in the struggle for the territories currently occupied by Russia. It should be pointed out, however, that it is very likely that the Republicans' post-election position towards Russia will be very different from their pre-election rhetoric. Nonetheless, the position taken by the Republican campaign on the matter is likely to put pressure on the Biden administration over the next 18 months, forcing it to be more cautious in its approach to assistance for Ukraine.