Few Fear the Dragon; A New Global Poll Shows That Most Countries Expect China to Soon Outpace the U.S.-And They're OK with That

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Byline: George Wehrfritz (With Jonathan Adams in Taipei)

Suddenly, the Chinese dragon doesn't look so scary. For several years, Beijing's leaders and diplomats have labored hard to portray their homeland as benign, well mannered and neighborly. Now a new global opinion survey out this week suggests their efforts have paid off. The once visceral fear felt in many quarters that China's rise would spell disaster for its business competitors, historical foes and political critics alike has dulled, while Beijing's ongoing campaign to cast its renaissance as what President Hu Jintao calls a "peaceful rising" has apparently begun to sway at least some hearts and minds around the globe.

The key finding of the poll, which was conducted by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and WorldPublicOpinion.org in conjunction with research centers around the world, is that a majority of citizens in 8 of 14 countries surveyed (and a plurality in 4) now expect that China will eventually catch up with the United States economically--yet they're utterly unconcerned by the prospect. Less than a third of respondents in every country surveyed believe China's rise will be "mostly negative," with majorities in most countries anticipating a mixed or positive outcome. That's not to say the dragon has suddenly morphed into a cuddly panda. Surprisingly--indeed, paradoxically--the survey also reveals that a majority or near majority of respondents in most countries don't trust China to act responsibly beyond its borders, and most Asians outside China, wary of Beijing's military build-up, favor an ongoing U.S. security presence in the region.

To illustrate this mistrust, consider that China's global score on this attribute is now virtually the same as that of the United States--which has seen its popularity slide precipitously since the 1990s, due in large part to the Iraq War and the arrogance it seemed to indicate. Both states were deemed untrustworthy global actors in 10 of 15 countries surveyed. That China ranks alongside a rival trapped in a far-flung military quagmire of its own making suggests that Beijing still has plenty of work to do rehabilitating its image. "People see China ascending to a top level in the world and they're responding in a pretty sanguine fashion," says pollster Steven Kull, director of the University of Maryland's program on international policy (which participated in the survey). "At the same time they haven't been snowed by it, either."

Maybe not, but the country's standing has definitely risen from the days when China exported revolution internationally like it now exports toys and TVs, and Chairman Mao topped the Western world's rogues' gallery. In essence, the survey reveals that China's rise, an event representing a tectonic shift in global power, elicits an international response "that is largely low-key" and "almost philosophical," says Kull. In contrast, he notes, Japan's emergence as an economic giant in the 1980s generated far more anxiety, according to opinion polls taken at the time.

Free trade is clearly central to China's allure and may explain foreigners' readiness to overlook its less savory aspects. Within Asia, the survey shows, citizens favor free-trade agreements with China and the lower barriers they offer. Half of respondents in South Korea say they advocate free trade with their giant neighbor, for example (two thirds of Koreans also favor one with Japan); and in Thailand, support for such pacts with China, Japan and the United States tops 60 percent. Likewise, most Chinese surveyed advocate similar deals with Japan and the United States. All of which makes perfect sense in the context of an ongoing regional trade boom linking China--increasingly the region's assembly hub (it finishes products made from components or materials built elsewhere) --to supply chains that stretch from Tokyo to Mumbai. The finding also illustrates the extraordinarily fast pace at which former rival economies are now integrating. …