What you need to know
Americans view Russia more negatively than China, but consider China the bigger threat.
In the eyes of the American public, which is a bigger threat: Russia or China? Recent events would draw American attention to both countries, especially as both authoritarian regimes threaten democracies. Our research asks Americans to choose and finds that the public makes little differentiation whether the challenge is to the United States or to democracies as a whole, overwhelmingly choosing China.
Over a year into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, no end is in sight, despite increasing U.S. and international pressure on Russia. Recently, Vladimir Putin placed Russia’s strategic nuclear weapons on combat duty, as a warning that Russia could use nuclear weapons if further intervention from the west occurs in Ukraine. U.S. actions to hold Russia accountable include immobilizing sovereign assets, imposing economic sanctions, restricting Russian exports, and increasing tariffs. Russian aggression and close proximity to NATO members further has led to the organization’s condemnation of Russia’s actions.
China provides several reasons for American concerns as well, from its expanding and technologically advanced military, its increasingly prominent role in what had been a U.S.-led world order, and a rapidly growing economy supported by disruptive technology. Earlier this year,Chinese surveillance balloons over the U.S. this year raised tensions in an already strained relationship.
How do Americans weigh these potential threats and do they see one of two countries as more of a threat to U.S. interests or to democracies as a whole? As public opinion would generate distinct pressures on policy based on the type of challenge assumed, we asked 1,231 Americans about their perceptions of Russia and China in a question on a national survey conducted on February 28, 2023, through mTurk. Through an experimental design, we randomly assigned respondents to answer one of two prompts below with Russia and China as options.
The prompts were:
Version 1: What country do you think poses a greater challenge to the U.S.?
Version 2: What country do you think poses a greater challenge to democracies?
Overall, respondents saw China as the bigger challenge, to both the U.S. and world democracies. But for Americans, China was more of a threat to U.S. interests than democracies; 7.04% respondents chose Russia when the focus of the question shifted to democracies. Clear differences emerged between Democrats and Republicans. For Democrats, Russia and China were threats of a similar magnitude, though China still raised more alarm. In the first version of the question, 59.94% of Democrats chose China, and it dropped to only 51.25% when the focus was on democracies as a whole. For Republicans, China was much more threatening than Russia. In the first version of the question, nearly three-quarters of Republicans (74.86%) chose China, and it only decreased by 2.97% when the focus shifted to democracies.
The results show that Republicans are far more likely to be concerned about China than Russia, despite the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. This may be as a result of this survey being sent out immediately after the Chinese spy balloon incident, in which a lot of coverage on the matter was done by a variety of popular media sources. Prior research done by Pew Research Center also shows that Republicans are twice as likely to see China as an enemy than their Democrat counterparts. Also, Democrats are as likely to regard China as a threat to world democracies as they are to regard Russia as a threat.
In an earlier question in the survey, we asked respondents to rate both countries, among others, on a scale ranging from very negative (1) to very positive (5). The results showed respondents, Democrats or Republicans, viewed Russia more negatively than China (China: 2.42, Russia 2.07); still, China turned out to be the bigger threat.
If taken at face value, the results suggest that the American public would be broadly supportive of policies to respond to China, especially if framed in terms of China’s challenge to U.S. interests, such as expansion of military bases in the region or increased economic sanctions. While the U.S. has aided Ukraine significantly through the supply of defense weapons, it can be expected that Americans will be showing more support for efforts such as reestablishing military bases in the Philippines due to the perception of China being a bigger challenge.
The survey reflects views of Congress’ current investigation into Chinese-owned social media platforms such as TikTok, as legislators are concerned that China might have access to American data and could potentially use it to influence Americans and control what they see. However, this effort to ban TikTok has been met with some pushback from the American public, shown in our own survey, which suggests a gap between concerns about China and actions to respond to China.
To sum up, Americans are more likely to be concerned about China’s influence and the challenge it poses to the U.S. and democracies abroad, despite Russia’s war on Ukraine. However, this is not to suggest that Americans don’t see Russia as a threat. They could be prioritizing one potential threat over another.
Timothy S. Rich is a Professor of Political Science at Western Kentucky University and Director of the International Public Opinion Lab (IPOL). His research focuses on public opinion and electoral politics, with a focus on East Asian democracies.
Shane Stryker is an honors undergraduate researcher majoring in International Affairs and History at Western Kentucky University.
Kierigan McEvoy is an honors undergraduate researcher and Army ROTC cadet majoring in International Affairs and Mandarin Chinese at Western Kentucky University.
Maria Julian is an honors undergraduate researcher majoring in International Affairs, Sociology, and Mandarin Chinese at Western Kentucky University.
This survey work was funded by generous resources from the Mahurin Honors College at Western Kentucky University.
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TNL Editor: Bryan Chou (@thenewslensintl)
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