Xi’s in the Money

Asian countries are wary about Beijing's growing power, and happy that America has made a forceful stand in the region. But China still brings home the bacon.

Photo credit: Handout
Photo credit: Handout

For Xi Jinping and China’s leaders, the Nov. 5-11 APEC summit should provide a welcome opportunity to showcase China’s economic progress. While recent global headlines about China have tended to focus on the democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong and the country’s often fraught relationship with its neighbors, the summit gives Beijing a chance to change the subject to economics, a topic with which it is far more comfortable. In Asia, many see China as the economic engine driving the region forward, while Western nations continue to struggle with the consequences of the Great Recession.

The summit at Yanqi Lake in the outskirts of Beijing will bring Pacific Rim leaders together to discuss issues like trade, regional economic integration, and corruption. And it will once again shine a global spotlight on the relative economic success Asia  — in particular China — has enjoyed since the 2008 financial crisis.

China’s growth rate may have slowed from more than 10 percent in 2010 to a projected 7.4 percent for 2014, but it is still outperforming most nations. In a 44-nation survey we at the Pew Research Center conducted from March to June of this year, Asian nations stand out for their positive economic mood. This is especially true in China, where 89 percent of respondents described their economic situation as good. Moreover, people are feeling the benefits of economic expansion in their own lives. Asians are more likely than those from any other region to say their level of life satisfaction is higher today than it was five years ago.

They also have the greatest sense of optimism about the future. Across the eleven Asian nations surveyed — Bangladesh, China, India, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, Pakistan, the Philippines, South Korea, Thailand, and Vietnam — 58 percent believe that when children in their country grow up they will be better off financially than their parents, a higher level of optimism than in Africa (51 percent), Latin America (50 percent) or the Middle East (35 percent).

Asian hopefulness stands in particularly stark contrast to the West. Americans are usually considered optimists, and passing along a better life to the next generation is a fundamental piece of the American dream — however, only 30 percent in the United States expect today’s children to be better off than their parents. Europeans are even gloomier: only 25 percent are hopeful about the next generation’s financial prospects.

Globalization has driven Asia’s economic success, and trade will be a big part of the APEC agenda. Unsurprisingly, Asian publics strongly embrace trade: 86 percent across the 11 nations surveyed say it is a good thing for their country. Support for trade tends to be highest in nations that have recently experienced strong economic growth, and our survey finds that the belief that trade leads to increased wages for workers is especially common in nations such as Vietnam, China, and Indonesia, which have experienced strong GDP gains since 2008.

For many in Asia, trade often means trade with China, and the importance of China’s economy isn’t lost on average citizens in the region. While many hold negative opinions about the People’s Republic, most see its economic prowess in a positive light: 75 percent of Thais, 69 percent of Malaysians, and 57 percent of South Koreans say China’s growing economy is a good thing for their country. Even in Japan, where only 7 percent have an overall favorable opinion of China, 47 percent describe China’s economic impact as positive; just 39 percent say it is negative. Two exceptions are Vietnam and the Philippines, where majorities believe China’s growing economy is a bad thing for their countries.

The challenge for Beijing is that even though the official APEC agenda will focus on economic topics, security issues will loom large in the background. Territorial rows between China and its neighbors — including clashes in the South China Sea with Vietnam and the Philippines, and a dispute with Tokyo over small uninhabited islands in the East China Sea — have been a topic of concern for foreign policy elites for years, but they are also worrying publics in the region. More than eight-in-10 Filipinos, Japanese, Vietnamese, and South Koreans say they are concerned that territorial disputes between China and neighboring countries could lead to a military conflict. Most Malaysians and Indonesians also hold this view, as do 62 percent in China itself. 

More broadly, China’s growing military strength worries many in the region. In a 2013 Pew Research survey, 96 percent in Japan and 91 percent in South Korea said that China’s increasing military power was a bad thing for their own countries. Large majorities in Australia and the Philippines agreed.

Meanwhile, as the Obama administration attempts to "rebalance" towards Asia, public attitudes about the United States are mostly positive in the region. Stunningly high numbers of Filipinos (92 percent) and South Koreans (82 percent) say they have a favorable opinion of the United States, as do roughly six-in-10 of the people in Vietnam, Thailand, Japan, and Indonesia. When asked to name their country’s top ally, in eight of the 11 Asian nations Pew surveyed, the most common answer is the United States. (Malaysia and Pakistan choose China, while the Chinese name Russia).

And while the percentage of the American public saying that the United States is less important and powerful than it used to be has never been higher, Obama will be traveling to a region where the United States is still considered relatively strong. Since the onset of the Great Recession in 2008, there has been a major shift in perceptions of the economic balance of power globally, with growing numbers identifying China as the world’s leading economic power. But in Asia, the United States is still considered No. 1. In nine of the 11 countries surveyed, a majority or plurality put the United States in the top spot. By contrast, in none of the Asian countries surveyed did a plurality of people name China (in Pakistan and Thailand, China and the United States are in a statistical dead heat for the top spot).

Asians are also more skeptical than others around the globe that China will ultimately supplant the United States as the world’s leading superpower: among the 44 nations polled, the Philippines, Vietnam, and Japan are the only countries where a majority says China will never replace the United States as the dominant superpower. They are actually far more optimistic about the future of U.S. power than Americans are — just 45 percent in the United States think China will never become the leading superpower, while 49 percent believe China eventually will or already has overtaken the United States.

In the end, APEC may provide some welcome news in Washington. Following the Democrats’ pummeling in the Nov. 4 midterm elections, Obama, who arrives at the summit on Nov. 10, may be happy to escape Washington and focus on something other than the political landscape at home. In Asia, he will visit a part of the world where his ratings are still high and assessments of American power are strong. And many of the leaders gathering in Beijing sill look to the United States to assuage their fears about China’s growing power and increasing assertiveness.

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