More Americans worry about Chinese cyber-attacks, military power: Pew survey

BEIJING - Even as United States 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 trade deficit, a study has found.

Instead, a growing number are worried about cyberattacks 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 (April 4), come ahead of a summit at Mr Trump's Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida on Thursday and Friday between Mr Trump and Mr Xi.

Observers expect the meeting - the first between the two leaders - to set the tone for US-China relations for the next four years.

Mr Trump tempered expectations on outcomes for the summit and indicated 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".

But 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 and the large amount of US debt in Chinese hands.

In contrast, worries over potential cyberattacks from China have risen in the latest survey, with 55 per cent viewing it as a serious problem - a 5 per cent 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."

Overall, Americans today tend to be more concerned about China's economic strength than its military prowess, though the number of Americans who see China as a military threat has grown from 28 to 36 per cent over the past five years.

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.

Said Professor Jia: "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."

China's impact on the environment is another area which more Americans view as a serious problem today compared with Pew's last such survey in May 2015 before Mr Xi's visit to the White House then.

One bright spot from the survey of some 1,500 respondents was that the overall number of Americans who view China favourably has risen to a six-year high of 44 per cent, just below the 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.

yanliang@sph.com.sg