US poll: More worry about Chinese cyber attacks than trade gap

A stream of binary coding, text or computer processor instructions, is seen displayed on a laptop computer screen.
A stream of binary coding, text or computer processor instructions, is seen displayed on a laptop computer screen.PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

US debt held by China tops list of concerns; growing number see China as military threat

Even as US President Donald Trump prepares to press his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping on reducing his country's trade deficit with China, significantly fewer Americans are bothered by the deficit, a study has found.

Instead, a growing number are worried about cyber attacks from China, and China as a military threat, said the survey by Pew Research Centre, a US think-tank devoted to analysing public attitudes.

The findings, released on Tuesday, come ahead of a summit between the two leaders tomorrow and on Friday. Observers expect the meeting - the first between Mr Trump and Mr Xi - to set the tone for US-China ties for the next four years.

Mr Trump tempered expectations on outcomes for the summit, and indicated that he will focus on trade issues when he tweeted last Friday that the meeting "will be a very difficult one in that we can no longer have massive trade deficits".

The Pew survey found on balance that Americans today tend to be more concerned about China's economic strength than its military prowess, and the amount of US debt held by the Chinese topped their list of concerns. But it also noted that the number of Americans who see China as a military threat has grown from 28 per cent to 36 per cent over the past five years. In contrast, only 44 per cent now see the trade deficit as a serious issue, down from 61 per cent in 2012.

Likewise, fewer fear the loss of jobs to China. But worries over potential cyber attacks from China have risen, with 55 per cent viewing it as a serious problem - a 5 percentage point uptick from 2012.

A Pentagon report released in February named China and Russia as key antagonists able to launch successful attacks against US critical infrastructure. It said: "Barring major unforeseen breakthroughs in the cyber defence of US civilian critical infrastructure, the United States will not be able to prevent large-scale and potentially catastrophic cyber attacks by Russia or China."

Analysts said this growing perception can be attributed to the American media's coverage of China.

For instance, much has been written about perceived Chinese aggression in the South China Sea and East China Sea, said Peking University's School of International Studies dean Jia Qingguo. "These, and reports about Chinese military modernisation, are probably getting into the heads of the American public, so they get the impression that China is building up its military. It's a reality that China is a stronger military power now. But whether that becomes a threat or not depends on how you manage the relationship."

If an Asian ally such as Japan, South Korea or the Philippines were to be embroiled in a military conflict with China, most Americans would back the use of force against Beijing, the survey found.

One bright spot from the survey of some 1,500 respondents conducted in the first quarter of this year was that the overall number of Americans who view China favourably has risen to a six-year high of 44 per cent, below 47 per cent who do not.

Democrats and the young are significantly more likely to express favourable views of China, compared with Republicans and the elderly.

"These shifts in views of China are taking place amid improving assessments of the US economy," said the report. About six in 10 polled saw the current US economic situation as either very or somewhat good, compared with four in 10 in 2015.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 05, 2017, with the headline 'US poll: More worry about Chinese cyber attacks than trade gap'. Print Edition | Subscribe