Americans are divided on whether the United States and China are in a cold war, according to a Morning Consult survey conducted Nov. 29-Dec. 1, 2021. A plurality of voters (44%) think that prevailing levels of economic, political and indirect military competition between the United States and China fall short of a cold war, while a smaller share (34%) think a cold war is already the reality. But hawkish sentiment among Republicans, a bare plurality of whom think a new cold war is upon the two countries, and pronounced uncertainty among all voter segments (reflected by high “Don’t know/No opinion” rates) suggest the scale could ultimately tip into cold war territory.
American Voters Are Divided on Whether the United States and China Are in a Cold War
Americans’ assessment of U.S.-China relations today relative to U.S.-Soviet relations during the last Cold War tells a similar story: A plurality of voters (30%) put U.S.-China and U.S.-Soviet relations on equal footing, and slightly more Republicans (28%) view U.S.-China relations as worse than U.S.-Soviet relations relative to the share holding the opposite view (26%). The share of voters who think U.S.-China relations are “somewhat better” is a close runner-up across party lines (except among Democrats, where it’s tied for first place). But here too the margins are slim, again pointing to uncertainty among voters.
A Plurality of Voters Think U.S.-China Relations Today Are as Bad as U.S.-Soviet Relations During the Cold War
Americans are more consistently bearish when it comes to the likelihood of rising military tensions with China. Fifty-six percent of voters anticipate that military tensions will increase over the next 12 months. And an even higher share (65%) see tensions escalating over the next five years.
A Majority of U.S. Voters Think Military Tensions With China Will Escalate for the Foreseeable Future
These findings offer a bleak outlook for the trajectory of U.S.-China relations. But Americans’ strong aversion to the chief risk of prolonged cold war-style competition — direct military conflict between two major geopolitical powers — suggests that public sentiment will limit U.S. politicians’ incentive to warmonger if tensions escalate.
In particular, a majority of U.S. voters (59%) feel the United States and China should avoid direct military conflict at all costs. What’s more, under a hypothetical scenario where the U.S. military believes it would win, still only a small share (15%) would favor engaging in such a conflict.
Most U.S. Voters Want to Avoid Direct Military Conflict With China at All Costs
These findings suggest that most U.S. voters are uninterested in gambling on the outcome of direct military conflict with China and are relatively clear-eyed about the potential costs. They also imply broad popular support for Biden’s “guardrails” approach to managing U.S.-China relations, which aims to prevent military conflict amid a period of heightened tensions.
This is good news for multinationals with business interests in the United States and China. Specifically, the data suggests that multinationals can worry less about the havoc that a direct military confrontation would inflict on global trade and supply chains while they manage the current period of pandemic-induced upheaval.
Over the longer term, multinationals deciding whether to reorient supply chains to limit their geopolitical risk exposure have another reason to be optimistic: A plurality of U.S. voters (39%) believe that neither the United States nor China would win a cold war. The finding suggests voters may similarly have a limited appetite for indirect military conflict with China, as well as for the prolonged and potentially more aggressive economic competition that a cold war could entail. Our earlier analysis — which found that U.S. voters want to dial down economic tensions with China and prefer only limited bans on Chinese companies doing business in the United States — reinforces this optimism.
U.S. Voters See No Winner in a Cold War With China
Whether the United States and China are already in a cold war or merely on the doorstep, multinationals with business interests in either country should remain attentive to the underlying geopolitical dynamics. But they do not yet need to run for the exit.