A growing number of people around the world believe that China will eventually surpass the United States as the world's premier superpower, if it hasn't already, according to the latest survey of 22 countries released here Thursday by the Pew Global Attitudes Project.
That view is particularly widespread in Western Europe, as well as China itself, where strong majorities of more than 60 percent of respondents said Beijing's replacement of Washington as global leader was an eventual, if not an actual certainty.
Altogether, pluralities or majorities in 15 of the 22 countries polled, including in the U.S. itself, agreed with that thesis in what the survey's director, Andrew Kohut, suggested represented "a new challenge to the image of the U.S.".
"Concerns about American power in the last decade have been supplanted by the view that American vitality is on the wane," Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center, wrote in an op-ed published by the Wall Street Journal.
"This notion may turn out to be every bit as difficult to deal with domestically and globally as was the earlier view that U.S. power needed to be curtailed," he noted.
At the same time, the survey, which was based on interviews with more than 27,000 people in a total of 23 nations between mid-March and mid-May, found little enthusiasm for the notion that China would become as militarily powerful as the U.S.
Majorities or pluralities in 15 countries said such a development would be a "bad thing"; only in seven countries, including China itself and several predominantly Muslim countries, was it seen as a "good thing". Views of the impact of China's economic rise were much more mixed.
And the United States is seen more favourably by the global publics than China, according to the survey. Despite declines in the U.S. image in many countries over the past year, the median percentage that offered an overall favourable assessment of the U.S. was 60 percent, eight points higher than China's percentage rating.
The survey also found that U.S. President Barack Obama has generally retained his popularity in most parts of the world, particularly in Western Europe, where large majorities expressed at least some confidence in his leadership. At the same time, however, he was given poor marks on specific policies he has pursued, particularly with respect to the Middle East and Afghanistan.
The new survey is the 10th in an annual series that has polled opinion on various international issues in as few as six and as many as 47 nations, including the Palestinian Territories (PT).
This year's edition included the U.S. and Mexico in North America; Brazil in South America; Kenya in sub-Saharan Africa; and eight European countries: Britain, France, Germany and Spain in Western Europe; and Lithuania, Poland, Russia, and Ukraine in Central and Eastern Europe.
In the Greater Middle East, the survey included Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, the PT, and Turkey; while Asian countries included China, India, Indonesia, Japan, and Pakistan.
While most of this year's survey – some parts of which dealt mostly with attitudes in the Arab and Islamic worlds on a range of issues, including the so-called "Arab Spring", were released over the past six weeks - deals with perceptions of the U.S. and China and their relative power, it also addresses global views on the economy and various other countries.
It found, for example, that, with the exception of China, Egypt, Brazil, and India, pluralities and majorities of respondents – ranging from 49 percent in Turkey to 92 percent in Pakistan – expressed dissatisfaction with the direction in which their countries were going.
It also found that favourable views of Iran, already relatively rare, fell further over the past year. In only three countries - Pakistan, Indonesia, and Russia - more respondents voiced favourable views of Tehran than those who expressed unfavourable views, while attitudes in Ukraine and the PT were evenly split.
Aside from the PT, significant majorities in Turkey (62 percent), Jordan (72 percent), Egypt (75 percent), Israel (92 percent), and Lebanon (59 percent) held unfavourable views of Iran, although in Lebanon, opinions split sharply along sectarian lines. Strikingly, the percentage of Egyptians with favourable views of Iran has fallen from 59 percent in 2006 to only 22 percent this year, according to the survey.
It found that the United Nations is seen favourably by majorities or pluralities in 16 of the countries polled. Kenya, Indonesia and most European countries gave the world body its highest favourability ratings.
On the other hand, the poll found sharp declines in support for the U.N. compared to 2009 in China (from 55 percent favourable to 37 percent), Mexico (from 58 percent to 44 percent), Jordan (from 44 percent to 35 percent), and Pakistan (from 28 percent to 21 percent).
On the U.S. and China, the survey found a significant increase in the percentage of respondents who believe that Beijing either already has replaced or will eventually replace the U.S. as the world's leading power compared to just two years ago – from a median percentage of 40 percent in 2009 to 47 percent this year.
At the same time the median percentage who said China will never replace the U.S. fell from 44 percent to 36 percent.
These changes in perception were most pronounced in Western Europe, although respondents in Poland, Jordan, Israel, and Pakistan also registered large shifts in China's direction. In the U.S. itself, the percentage of people who said China had or will replace the U.S. grew from 33 percent to 46 percent in the two years.
Significantly, China itself was the only country where the percentage of people who took that view declined over the two years – from 67 percent in 2009 to 63 percent this year.
While China's overall favourability lagged behind the U.S., its image has improved in half of the 22 countries over the past year. They include all four Western European nations, Indonesia, Japan, Egypt and Poland, as well as the U.S. itself.
In contrast, Washington's image declined in a number of countries, most notably in Turkey, Jordan, Pakistan, and Kenya. On the other hand, its popularity in Japan skyrocketed from 66 percent to 85 percent favourable, due most probably to the aid it provided after the devastating tsunami and earthquake that struck the country in March, according to Kohout.
Particularly remarkable was the widespread belief, especially in Western Europe, that China has already become the world's leading economic power. Just under half of respondents in Spain, Germany, Britain, and France believe that China's economy has surpassed the U.S.'s. Two out of three Chinese respondents, by contrast, said the U.S. was the world's dominant economic power.
China last year displaced Japan as the world's second biggest economy but is estimated at only half the size of the U.S. gross domestic product (GDP). Given current and projected rates of growth, most economists believe China's GDP should overtake the U.S. by 2020.
Jim Lobe, "China Eclipsing U.S. in Global Reach, Poll Finds" (Washington, DC: Foreign Policy In Focus, July 19, 2011)
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