Depending on how you look at it, the latest Pew Global survey presents a glass-half-full narrative of enduring American influence, or a glass-half-empty narrative about declining American prestige. The good news? The U.S. is still considered the world’s top economic power by a comfortable plurality of the countries surveyed. The bad news? China is catching up, including among top American allies in Europe. More from Pew:
Across 38 nations polled by Pew Research Center, a median of 42% say the U.S. is the world’s leading economy, while 32% name China. […]
But in seven of the 10 European Union nations in the study, China is considered the leading economic power (it is tied with the U.S. for the top spot in Italy). A plurality in Russia also holds this view. And China leads the U.S. by a two-to-one margin in Australia – a longtime U.S. ally, but also a country whose top trading partner, by far, is China.
Those trend lines are certainly dismaying for those who worry about the U.S. losing its soft power edge to China. But the growing recognition of China’s economic might doesn’t necessarily translate into growing respect for its leadership or political model. Tellingly, 53 percent of those surveyed expressed “no confidence” in Xi Jinping’s ability to do the right thing in the world, and only 25 percent of respondents believed that the Chinese government respected its citizens’ personal freedoms—compared to 54 percent who held this view about the United States.
If value judgments about China trend negative globally, though, they are quite positive in significant swathes of sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America. Publics in countries like Nigeria or Peru, where Beijing has made significant strategic investments, positively embrace China:
The most favorable views of China are found in sub-Saharan Africa – a region where China has invested heavily in infrastructure and development. Positive opinions surpass negative ones by a more than four-to-one margin in Nigeria, Senegal and Tanzania. […]
In Latin America, positive sentiment toward China is highest in Peru. Roughly half in Brazil, Venezuela and Chile also have positive feelings about the Asian economic giant.
This is a significant finding, suggesting that China’s massive investments in Africa and Latin America have changed some hearts and minds in its favor. But that conclusion does not apply in every case. In Ghana, for instance, favorable views of China have dropped 31 percent since 2015, as tensions have sparked over China’s intrusive involvement in its mining sector. Where they once welcomed China as an economic lifeline, Ghanians are beginning to resent China’s outsized role in their economy: a cautionary tale for those in Beijing who assume that throwing money at underdeveloped countries is enough to endear their populations to China.
Overall, it was a better year than not for China’s global stature, but this hardly implies unstoppable momentum towards global leadership. History is long, and unpredictable.