How Democrats and Republicans View U.S.-China Relations
U.S. adults’ views of China have softened slightly in recent months, especially among Democrats. But as the 2024 election nears, diplomacy is likely to give way to domestic political posturing.
Overwhelming majorities of U.S. adults as well as Democrats and Republicans are worried about bilateral tensions and want both sides to reduce them, but pluralities across the political spectrum struggle to name the critical policy issues that should be addressed.
Most adults support keeping existing tariffs in place, especially Republicans, even though GOP supporters are also most inclined to say such tariffs actually hurt Americans’ interests.
In a warning sign for American companies, near majorities across the political spectrum favor banning them from selling advanced technology to China. Non-trivial shares also support banning all U.S. companies from doing business with China.
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As America heads into election season, China is sure to be a key flashpoint, but where does the American electorate stand at present and just how stark are partisan divisions on the most important issues?
Our recently released report on the state of U.S.-China relations contains a trove of useful data.
Both parties are sour on China, especially Republicans
As of October, a majority of U.S. adults (59%) view China in hostile terms — specifically as either an enemy or unfriendly — though Democrats tend to be more dovish toward Beijing than Republicans. Roughly half of Democrats (52%) now view China through a combative lens compared with nearly three quarters of GOP supporters (72%). In fact, the share of Republicans who view China as an outright enemy is now equal to the share of Democrats who view China as either an enemy or unfriendly.
While negative views of China have declined 4 percentage points among the general population in the last six months, the partisan gulf has widened over this period: The share of Democrats holding such views of China fell by 10 percentage points compared with a decline of just 3 points for Republicans. Moreover, the percentage of Republicans with negative views of China actually rose 8 points over the past three months.
Driven by Democrats, Americans’ Views of China Have Softened Slightly Over 2023, yet Remain Hostile
Biden’s diplomatic progress is likely to face election-year headwinds
Democrats’ softening views toward China have likely come in response to the Biden administration’s concerted efforts to put a floor under spiraling bilateral relations. A string of high-level visits by U.S. officials to Beijing in the past six months has started to pay dividends. China’s top diplomat recently visited Washington — the first such trip in over five years — setting the stage for a tentative meeting between Presidents Joe Biden and Xi Jinping later this month.
That said, we expect the partisan divide to widen in the short term and then close as the election nears. Look specifically for Republican candidates to bash Biden as being soft on China, especially if his meeting with Xi proves in any way fruitful. And despite a recent easing in the tenor of bilateral relations, a slim majority of Democrats still hold antagonistic views toward China, giving Biden limited room to maneuver in his push to improve bilateral relations. This is all the more so given the upcoming general election: Biden will be at pains to avoid hemorrhaging voters over the China issue or look weak against Beijing, especially in an expected rematch against Donald Trump.
There’s broad concern and uncertainty about China among U.S. adults of all political stripes
Despite deep-seated hostilities on all sides (including in China), roughly three-quarters of Democrats and Republicans said they are concerned about bilateral military and economic tensions, slightly outpacing the overall share of adults who exhibit such concerns per the executive summary of our full report. Yet despite a general consensus that it would be beneficial to reduce tensions — more than 7 in 10 U.S. adults, Democrats and Republicans want the United States and China to work together to resolve their issues — Americans are hard pressed to identify the specific issues on which they would like politicians to make progress. A plurality said they don’t know or have no opinion when it comes to the most important issue to resolve in bilateral relations. This speaks to a generalized hardening of U.S. views on China in recent years that will be tricky to walk back.
Most Americans Want to Reduce U.S.-China Tensions, but a Plurality Can’t Identify the Most Pressing Issue to Resolve
Amid this lack of public certitude, candidates for office in 2024 are unlikely to make bold policy proposals to resolve any specific aspect of bilateral relations. What’s more, the overall U.S. public is even more uncertain on how to improve bilateral relations than Democrats or Republicans are, implying that good-faith investments in resolving specific issues would do little to sway critical independent or undecided voters. During an electoral cycle in which 10% of U.S. voters say they plan to vote for a third-party presidential candidate, and with an additional 5% unsure, the anticipated importance of independent voters will push the likelihood of such policy efforts into 2025 or beyond, increasing the prospect of intransigence in bilateral relations until then.
Bipartisan support for maintaining tariffs on China makes trade reconciliation unlikely
Businesses looking for relief from the multiyear trade war should not hold their breath: Our data suggests they are unlikely to find allies on either side of the aisle ahead of the election given bipartisan support for keeping existing tariffs in place. A majority of U.S adults (56%) support the tariffs, including both Democrats (60%) and Republicans (65%), with independents and those with undecided party affiliation accounting for the gap.
Interestingly, more than a third of GOP supporters (37%) strongly support such tariffs. And yet, Republicans are more likely than Democrats to say they hurt American consumers, the middle class, individuals’ economic well-being and the economy overall. Moreover, in the first three instances they are more inclined to say that tariffs hurt rather than help.
Democrats are more consistent in their views: They are more inclined to say that tariffs help rather than hurt in each instance, though only in the case of the overall economy does the share that believes they help reach 50%. And yet, in all cases the share of Democrats who support keeping the tariffs in place exceeds the shares citing the tariffs as beneficial.
This disconnect highlights the extent to which the trade war — now in its fifth year — has been subsumed into a general public (and punitive) hawkishness toward China in American political discourse that sometimes defies economic logic. China’s currently struggling economy, meanwhile, could ordinarily provide an opening for bilateral dialogue over trade war relief. But such hardline U.S. positions across the aisle make such propositions unprofitable domestically, and thus, increasingly unlikely as the election approaches. Companies holding out hope for any form of trade relief will likely have to wait until after the general election, though even then, we view the prospects as slim.
Republicans Are Most Likely to Say China Tariffs Harm Voters’ Interests yet Are Also Most Likely to Support Them
China needs investment, but commercial decoupling is popular among both Democrats and Republicans
At present, China is growing ever more desperate for foreign investment, having recently logged an unprecedented foreign investment imbalance for the first time since it began publishing such statistics 25 years ago. Yet American companies considering de-risking or exiting the Chinese market need not wait for the general election to gauge which way the political winds are going to blow. Per our data, majorities across the political spectrum favor partial or complete bans on U.S. companies doing business in China, with nearly half of Democrats, Republicans and U.S. adults overall supporting such restrictions when advanced technology is at stake. But 16% of U.S. adults, 17% of Democrats and, more strikingly, 19% of Republicans now say they favor an all-out ban on American firms operating in China.
A Plurality of U.S. Adults Favor Banning American Companies From Selling Advanced Technology to China
Expect limited progress through 2023
China’s weakened economy would ordinarily create potential openings for the sort of bilateral cooperation most U.S. adults said they would like to see, so as to resolve dangerous tensions between the world’s two extant superpowers. Yet drilling down into U.S. adults’ views on particular policy issues reveals a hardening of attitudes among both Democrats and Republicans, with the latter tending to be more hawkish.
Given this relatively bipartisan consensus, we expect the upcoming election cycle — and related political constraints highlighted throughout this memo — will impede a substantial softening of U.S. tensions with China. If anything, as the election draws closer, tough talk aimed at China is likely to ratchet up as bilateral diplomacy takes a backseat to domestic signaling. Significant electoral gains for Republicans, should they materialize, are likely to delay improved bilateral relations, let alone a U.S.-China reconciliation, even further.
This memo focuses on views among U.S. adults (instead of U.S. voters) to facilitate comparisons to Chinese adults, as featured in our companion report on the state of U.S.-China relations. Please contact us with questions regarding views among U.S. voters specifically, and with commercial inquiries regarding access to the underlying data.
Scott Moskowitz is senior analyst for the Asia-Pacific region at Morning Consult, where he leads geopolitical analysis of China and broader regional issues. Scott holds a Ph.D. in sociology from Princeton University and has years of experience working in and conducting Mandarin-language research on China, with an emphasis on the politics of economic development and consumerism. Follow him on Twitter @ScottyMoskowitz. Interested in connecting with Scott to discuss his analysis or for a media engagement or speaking opportunity? Email [email protected].