Hot Summer, Cold Winter: As Tensions Over Taiwan Cool, Is China Settling In for a New Cold War?
According to our U.S.-China Relations Barometer recent developments don’t seem to have shifted the needle much on mutual favorability, or lack thereof, which remains relatively flat: Just over 60% of U.S. adults hold unfavorable views of China, while 72% of Chinese adults hold unfavorable views of the United States.
But more substantial movement is visible in other data series surrounding U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan in August: The share of Chinese adults expecting bilateral military tensions to escalate over the next 12 months spiked to 63% that same month, the highest share since we began tracking the issue and the first time Chinese expectations exceeded those of U.S. respondents.
U.S. adults’ expectations of military conflict also notched a tracker high of 56% in August and have held flat since then, with Chinese sentiment now matching U.S. opinion on the matter.
The share of Chinese adults who see the United States as an enemy is also on the upswing, reaching a four-month high of 73% in October, up from 66% in July, just before Pelosi’s trip.
Despite Chinese President Xi Jinping’s admonitions against a “Cold War mentality,” the share of Chinese adults who believe the United States and China are now in a cold war reached a tracker high of 28% this month, the first time more than a quarter of Chinese adults have held this view.
Xi’s speech at the opening of the 20th National Congress of China’s Communist Party indicates he is unlikely to diverge from the combative approach that has soured U.S.-China relations during his first two terms in power. But neither did it indicate the situation has devolved into emergency territory, leaving our short-term outlook for U.S. businesses with China exposure relatively unchanged.
Unbowed by the dismal state of U.S.-China relations, Xi is sticking to his guns
In his nearly two-hour speech at the opening of the Communist Party’s 20th National Congress, Chinese President Xi Jinping vowed not to waver from the status quo of his previous two terms in office, which were marked by a self-confident and assertive foreign policy aimed at the “rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.”
Over the last 10 years, Xi’s determination to refashion China into a global superpower has coincided with a downturn in relations with the world’s other great superpower: the United States. As China shuffles its top political leadership around Xi and sets its future course at its quinquennial Communist Party gathering, we take a look at the current state of bilateral relations using data from our U.S.-China Relations Barometer.
Mutual disdain may be the one consistent point of agreement between China and the United States
Our data shows the two countries hold deeply negative perceptions of each other, with our bilateral favorability data remaining relatively flat over the past year.
U.S.-China Bilateral Favorability
At present, 72% of Chinese adults hold either “somewhat unfavorable” or “very unfavorable” views of the United States, a figure that has fluctuated over the last few months but is unchanged from the previous year. Meanwhile, 62% of U.S. respondents hold negative views of China, a share that has never shifted more than 3 percentage points since we began tracking the issue.
While favorability — or lack thereof, rather — appears to be fairly consistent, there are more telling signposts in our tracker that suggest where things are headed, especially pertaining to recent developments around Taiwan.
Pelosi’s Taiwan visit, and Beijing’s furious response, stoked fears of military conflict
Taiwan — a self-governing island that China claims sovereignty over, and that the United States has (ambiguously) pledged to defend — is a particular sticking point in U.S.-China relations. It is also a key policy priority for Xi, who framed China’s determination to claim the island as a historic inevitability during his opening remarks to the party congress.
“The wheels of history are rolling on toward China’s reunification and the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation,” Xi said, declaring that China would “continue to strive for peaceful reunification with the greatest sincerity” but would “never promise to renounce the use of force.” These lines drew raucous applause from thousands of party officials, the most significant response of the night. While he did not explicitly mention the United States, Xi added that this statement was “directed solely at interference by external forces.”
Indeed, China’s already-frosty relations with the United States appeared to enter dangerous new territory this summer following House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan in August. China characterized the visit by such a senior U.S. leader as a dangerous provocation, responding with scathing admonitions against meddling in what China considers its internal affairs. This was followed by a series of aggressive military maneuvers that saw tensions in the region escalate to their highest point in years.
Our data bears this deterioration out but also indicates that anxieties have cooled somewhat since.
Perceived Likelihood of Escalating Military Tensions
The flurry of military activity in August appeared to resonate in China, at least initially. That month, the share of Chinese adults predicting military tensions would escalate in the coming year rose to its highest point (63%) since we began tracking sentiment on the issue in early 2022. Notably, this was the first time that Chinese expectations of heightened tensions eclipsed the equivalent U.S. share (56%), itself a tracker high. Since that time, however, Chinese expectations have cooled as China’s military mobilization has returned to normal levels. They now sit even with the United States at 56%, still the highest level of Chinese sentiment observed aside from August 2022.
While many multinationals with significant China exposure began to seriously consider a post-China future for the first time this summer, contemplating contingency plans in case of a Chinese attack on Taiwan, they should take heed that tensions, though still elevated, have diminished slightly. And while Xi in his speech refused to rule out the use of force, our view is that his posturing was more of a strategic hedge against the United States than anything else. His framing of the issue in historical terms, meanwhile, would seem to signal that he does not plan to take a more militant approach to reunification, at least in the immediate future.
China’s outlook hardens
While tensions have cooled somewhat since August, public animosity now appears to be settling in for the long run.
Allies or Enemies?
One month after August’s heightened tensions, the share of U.S. adults identifying China as either an enemy or unfriendly rose to a tracker high of 69% and remains somewhat elevated relative to the historical trend. Tensions flared from March to May after China did not condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and Tokyo hosted a summit of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue. Meanwhile, the share of Chinese identifying the United States as an enemy or unfriendly ticked up to a four-month high of 73% in October, rising 7 percentage points from a tracker low of 66% in July.
Hot tempers give way to Cold War thinking
In his remarks at the party congress, Xi lashed out against the re-emergence of a “Cold War mentality” among nations seeking to contain China, a consistent theme for him over the past year, and more recently in response to U.S. President Joe Biden’s newly published national security strategy, which calls for “out-competing China.”
Cold War 2.0?
Despite Xi’s bristling at chilly treatment from the West, a similar mentality may be taking hold in his own country. The share of Chinese adults who believe their country is now in a cold war with the United States (28%) is on the upswing, with October marking the first time since we began tracking that more than a quarter of Chinese respondents have believed this to be the case.
U.S.-China relations will remain fraught, but no immediate crisis looms
As Xi settles in for another five years at China’s helm, the outlook for U.S.-China relations appears bleak, but it doesn’t seem to have devolved into emergency territory as far as multinationals operating in China are concerned. For now, they should pay close attention to messaging emanating from both sides of the divide and proceed with contingency planning, while remaining in wait-and-see mode with respect to an outright withdrawal from the Chinese market.
Going forward, interested parties should pay particular attention to our data series on Chinese adults’ cold war impressions, which have ticked steadily higher since the spring, compared with several of our other data series that have remained more variable as a function of geopolitical developments. The former trend continues to suggest that a long-term thaw in relations is unlikely.
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].