- - Monday, May 29, 2017

Half of China’s public believes that military conflict between China and the United States will occur within the next 10 years. This is one finding of the 2017 U.S. China Public Perceptions Opinion Survey, (the “Survey”) published by the Committee of 100 (C100) during its annual conference, held last week in Washington D.C.

The C100 is a national organization of prominent Chinese Americans, founded in 1990 by superstars I.M. Pei (architect) and Yo Yo Ma (musician) “to promote the participation of Chinese Americans in all fields of American life and encourage constructive relationships between the people of the United States of America and Greater China”.

The Survey is a veritable treasure chest of information about American and Chinese public perceptions on a host of major issues — and the C100 brought it to the attention of Members of Congress and high-level staff at the State Department and the White House last week. The findings are based on face-to-face interviews with 3,696 Chinese respondents and telephone interviews with 1,018 Americans, using the most advanced methods of survey science and techniques. This report reflects also my face-to-face interview with Mr. Charlie Woo, who led the Survey effort. Mr. Woo’s day job is co-founder and CEO of Megatoys, Inc. in addition to his prominence in many civic and community causes in his hometown of Los Angeles and nationally.

Of all the results documented in this survey, perhaps the most critical issues deal with the prospects for war and peace. As recognized by both groups surveyed, the United States has been a major power in the Far East since the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1942. Its influence endures to this day in spite of its defeat in Vietnam, although more as an economic giant in recent years.

China, on the other hand, has survived a long period of turbulence to emerge in the present generation as a major economic force, with a growing military footprint in Asia. Thus, a growing rivalry is developing between the two nations. Our conversation with Mr. Woo centered on the question of how both countries feel about the inevitability of a military confrontation. Americans perceive China’s military power as a “potential” to “serious” threat to the U.S. by a whopping 73 percent, and their global economic power by 63 percent.

On the negative side of this assessment stands the evidence that “80% of the Chinese think that China should trust the U.S. a little or not at all.” This is up from 56 percent in 2012. In addition, “61% of the Chinese believe that the U.S. is trying to prevent China from becoming a great power.” Also, “favorable impressions” in both countries have declined from 2012 — China from 59 percent to 55 percent, U.S. from 55 percent to 48 percent. Thus, public opinion in both countries of the other is not encouraging.

Fortunately, however, there are significant positive signals as well. First, both sides list the same issues as major concerns, namely, jobs and the economy, a happy family life (for the first time in China), and climate change. Also, on collaboration between the two countries to solve the North Korea problem, the sides agree by 91 percent of Americans and 74 percent of Chinese.

Against this background, Mr. Woo was asked to discuss his impressions of the prospect of war. A couple of factors must be considered. First, the Chinese public is dependent even more than the American public on the press and the media for its information about America and whatever activities might be taking place at any given time. The Survey was taken from Nov. 18, 2016 to Jan. 9, 2017. A major event took place this past April — the meeting between the presidents of China and the U.S.

By all accounts, this meeting has had significant impact on relations between the two nations by encouraging mutual agreements on trade, investment, and North Korea. Particularly relevant to this message is the nearly simultaneous Senate confirmation of Terry Branstad, popular, longtime governor of Iowa – who has a 30-plus year personal relationship with President Xi. Also, new trade deals with China concerning beef, LNG and financial protections for American companies investing in China were announced by Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross on May 13 (just prior to the C100 conference).

Since the press is generally in tune with the government, it seems likely that any change in the government’s attitude toward the U.S. will be reflected in popular opinion. Assuming that this rapprochement grows and cooperation increases apace, the signs that the Chinese public will increase its opinion of the Americans are quite encouraging.

On this point, economist James Rickards (The Path to Ruin, Random House, 2016) has speculated that the China’s days of artificially inflating or devaluing the yuan as needed to support foreign trade are over. The result will be that outlying areas of the country will soon suffer noticeable decreases in their standard of living. This decline may, in Richard’s thesis, cause civil unrest to rise and threaten the ruling Communist Party.

Mr. Woo points out the overwhelming number (92 percent) of Chinese believe that China is on the right track. This finding speaks forcefully to popular support of the government. Not to say that circumstances might not change in the future, but there is no lack of support for the status quo at present. So, there seems to be no disposition for war on either side of this emerging rivalry. A cautionary note, however: “60% of the Chinese think that China will surpass the U.S. as the world’s leading superpower”.

Graham Allison’s “Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’ Trap?” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017) chronicles the risks imbedded in the coming challenge of China to America’s hegemony in Asia but also holds out hope that war can be avoided. Of the sixteen historical cases he cites, twelve have resulted in war — but four have escaped through various accommodations. He, like Mr. Woo — and all the rest of us – believes war can be avoided.

To these considerations, I would add another historical note: Both Americans and Chinese will do well to remember that the United States of America spent most of the last half of the twentieth century in a contest with the Soviet Union, and eventually watched the downfall of that adversary without resorting to a fighting war. We did so at great sacrifice by spending beyond our means, for which we have been paying the price since 1971. And we did so to preserve the peace, to avoid a World War III — which our friends in Europe had failed to do in the first half of the twentieth century.

That accomplishment should stand as a reminder to our rivals in the twenty-first century that Americans are a peaceful people. We are a country of merchants who would rather sell a refrigerator than shoot a gun.

China too has not engaged in a shooting war since the Korean armistice of 1953. This fact sends the same message as does the American detente with the Soviet Union — the Chinese too can be presumed to be a peaceful people.

War with China is therefore not inevitable, if this generation can learn from our predecessors how to keep the peace.

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