28.04.23 Review

A Dangerous Union: the Moscow-Beijing rapprochement alarms the West, forcing a consolidation of public opinion

Negative attitudes towards China continue to grow in both US and European public opinion. Over the past year, Beijing's position on the Russia-Ukraine war has played a key role in this process. According to polls, the rapprochement between Beijing and Moscow outranks tensions over Taiwan by 15 percentage points in the US list of ‘Chinese threats’ (62% and 47% of respondents, respectively), while in Europe, against the backdrop of the war in Ukraine, the Russia-China partnership is leading to increased support for closer ties with the United States and recognition of its political-military leadership.

The results of a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center in late March 2023 suggest that perceptions of China are deteriorating in the US. China is viewed negatively by 83% of Americans, with a rise in extreme negativity (44%) by four percentage points since last year. This in turn affects how people perceive bilateral relations: the proportion of those who see China as an enemy rather than a competitor or partner has risen by 13 points to 38%, while only 6% of respondents consider the PRC to be a partner. Republicans, those with a higher level of education, and the older generation of Americans hold more negative views of China than Democrats, Americans without a college degree, and younger respondents. 

The cooperation that has developed between China and Russia over the past year has heightened Americans' perceptions of the ‘China threat'. When asked what challenges China's policies pose to the US, 62% of respondents cited its alliance with Moscow (up 5 points from last October), while the growing tensions over Taiwan (which threaten to draw the US directly into any conflict) were cited by only 47%, the same as the number of respondents who cited Beijing's human rights policies as a threat to the US. Chinese military power was cited as the main ‘Chinese threat’ by 44% of respondents. 

The majority of Americans (around three-quarters) believe that China acts without regard for the interests of other international actors and that its actions are not conducive to peace and global stability (8 in 10 Americans share this view). Not surprisingly, 54% of respondents believe it is impossible for the US and China to work together to solve international conflicts, and 52% have a similarly negative view of cooperation when it comes to climate policy and the fight against the spread of infectious diseases. The two areas where Americans believe cooperation between Beijing and Washington is possible are trade and economic policy (52%) and student exchange programmes (65%).

However, the current US-China trade relationship does not seem equitable to a large proportion of American society: 47% believe that it benefits China more than it does the US. Thus, while economic cooperation is possible, almost half of Americans believe that policies need to be adjusted or revised, which means that this may also be an arena for potential conflict, evident in the tensions which already surfaced during the Trump presidency. Economic interests and geopolitical fears are closely intertwined. For example, 50 percent of Americans surveyed support a ban on TikTok in the US, while only 22 percent oppose it.

Against the backdrop of the war in Ukraine, the partnership between Russia and China is also a growing concern for Europeans. Last summer, the international research company Ipsos conducted a poll in 13 EU countries on behalf of the International Republican Institute (IRI) to gauge European attitudes towards China. 34% of respondents said their attitudes towards China had grown more negative over the past year. The most significant deterioration was seen in Austria (47%), Lithuania (41%), Poland (38%) and Italy (37%).

At the same time, 66% of respondents who said their personal perception of China had worsened cited China's Russia policy as the main reason. A further 50% were influenced by Beijing's human rights record at home and abroad. In addition, 40% linked China to the war in Ukraine, noting Beijing's support for Moscow's territorial claims and its appeasement of the Russian invasion, while 46% said their country's leaders should take some action to combat this: impose economic or individual sanctions, or work with allies to condemn China's policies at the United Nations.

These results clearly show that many Europeans see the working relationship between Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping as a continent-wide security threat — they are concerned about the alliance between the two authoritarian regimes in their 'backyard', said Jan Surotczak of IRI, which commissioned the poll. In their analysis of data from a European poll conducted last spring, Ivan Krastev and Marc Leonard of the ECFR found that despite outrage over Russia's invasion of Ukraine, Europeans do not yet see Russia as an existential threat, unlike during the Cold War, and they perceive it as much weaker than the USSR. However, it is the emerging alliance between Russia and China that is, to some extent, pushing both Americans and Europeans back towards this perception of the geopolitical situation. The new ECFR survey shows that this, in turn, is leading to an increase in European support for a closer relationship with the US as part of a politico-military alliance in which the Americans play a leading role.