How Obama-Trump Geopolitics Is Changing American Attitudes toward China and the World

September 14, 2018

By Dan Steinbock

In the past few years, American attitudes toward China have been shifting. The changeshift did not start in the Trump era, as US observers argue. It began with President Obama’s effort to militarize and split Asia.

As the veteran journalist’s Bob Woodward’s new book Fear: Trump in the White House, is shaking the Trump administration and the polarized America, Washington’s trade hawks threaten to escalate their tariff wars. Historically, times of trade wars and protectionism tend to go hand in hand with negative attitudes toward other nations – and our era is no exception.

According to newly-launched survey by Pew Research Center, American attitudes toward China have become somewhat less positive over the past year. Overall, 38% of Americans have a favorable opinion of China, down slightly from 44% in 2017. In recent years, something similar has also been reported in America regarding the attitudes toward other countries, particularly emerging and developing nations.

According to Pew authors, attitudes toward China have fluctuated to some extent in recent years, becoming more negative during the 2012 election cycle, but more positive in 2017, before this year’s decline. Their title reflects their conclusion: “As Trade Tensions Rise, Fewer Americans See China Favorably.”

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Nevertheless, the title ignores causal links that go far beyond the recent trade war and involve US geopolitics in the post-Cold War, at the expense of economic cooperation.

How US geopolitics is shaping negative China perceptions

Through the post-Cold War era, every presidential campaign has had its share of China-bashing, from Bill Clinton blaming George H. W. Bush for “coddling the butchers of Beijing” to Trump’s allegation that “China is raping America.” Accordingly, positive perceptions of China have been systematically replaced by negative perceptions toward the end of the campaign seasons in 2008, 2012, and 2016.

In Obama’s first term, perceptions were more positive because in the post-crisis White House, the focus was on the U.S. financial turmoil, not on China. To avoid the Great Depression 2.0, America needed the support of the rest of the world, and particularly that of China, which at the time accounted for half of global growth prospects.

But after interest rates had been cut to zero and rounds of quantitative easing began, President Obama opted for very different policies. As he launched his geopolitical ’pivot to Asia’, while starting the talks about a US-led Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which excluded China, American people got the message. From 2011 to 2014, favorable American attitudes toward China plunged from more than 50% to barely 35%.

As this adversarial shift was then coupled with Trump’s presidential campaign, which blamed America’s economic fall on China, and Hillary Clinton’s Democratic campaign, which portrayed China as a global military risk, American perceptions stayed unfavorable until 2016.

Nevertheless, once the election was over, American China perceptions, once again, began to grow more positive in 2017, as trade tensions were relieved. But the status quo changed dramatically to more negative as Trump launched his tariff war against China (Figure).

Figure American Attitudes toward China

Source: Survey data from Pew Research Center.


Old age cohorts, old China perceptions

The Pew survey does reveal something positive as well. There is a significant generation gap between those American age groups that grew of age in the Reagan years, or during the Cold War – and more youthful American age cohorts.

Half of 18- to 29-year-olds (49%) express a favorable view of China, compared with 30-49-year-olds (37%) and 50 and older (34%). They are growing of age in a more multipolar era, which many see as an opportunity, not as a threat.

Nevertheless, the challenge is that US tariff wars are being led by uber-Republicans, who belong the oldest age cohort.

Trump himself is 72 years old. His US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, who initiated his trade wars already in the Reagan era, is almost as old. And Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross, is over 80 years old. Even the China-bashing architect of the trade wars, Director of Trade and Industrial Policy Peter Navarro, and Trump’s trade adviser, Dan DiMicco, former CEO of US steel giant Nucor, are close to the 70.

It is an ancient but potentially fatal combination. As old politicians and policymakers find it hard not to wage battles over their bygone past, they threaten to penalize the future of their children.

About the Author:

Dr. Dan Steinbock is the founder of Difference Group and has served as research director at the India, China and America Institute (USA) and visiting fellow at the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies (China) and the EU Center (Singapore). For more, see 

The original version was published by Chinaorg, China’s official government portal on September 12, 2018



Wike, R. and Devlin, K. 2018. “As Trade Tensions Rise, Fewer Americans See China Favorably.” Pew Research Center, Aug 28.

Diamond, J. 2016. “Trump: ‘We can’t continue to allow China to rape our country.’”’” CNN, May 1. On China bashing in recent presidential campaigns, see e.g., “A Mainstay of Presidential Campaigning: China Bashing.” CBS News, Aug 28, 2015; and Green, J. 2011. “China Bashing on the Campaign Trail.” Bloomberg BusinessWeek, Nov 18.