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American Image Alright in Asia

By Richard Halloran

The conventional wisdom holds that the image of America in Asia today is mostly negative. Not so, says a survey published this week, at least in China, Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, and Indonesia. Moreover, in perhaps surprising contrast, the survey said China does not fare well among other Asians.

The Chicago Council on Global Affairs reported that "the United States is still highly regarded in all five of the key areas of soft power addressed in this survey: economics, culture, human capital, diplomacy, and politics." Soft power means using non-military measures to influence other nations.

The Chicago Council, which is considered to reflect Midwestern common sense, added: "Whether this influence is a product of U.S. foreign policy or exists in spite of it, it is clear that the United States has a very strong foundation on which to build future policy in the region."

(Presidential candidates, please take note.)

On China, the survey found a majority of Asians believed the rise of that nation to be inevitable but not to their benefit. Majorities in Japan and South Korea were uncomfortable with China becoming the leader of Asia. In Indonesia and Vietnam, less than a majority said they feared China.

The survey, contrary to other polls, found that China "lags behind the United States in perceptions of its diplomatic, political, and human capital soft power, though perceptions of China's soft power are decidedly stronger in Southeast Asia."

Asian skepticism was evident "when respondents were asked whether their countries share similar values with China." China's diplomatic influence was not perceived as strong as portrayed in some studies. When asked whether China's political system served its people, other Asians were dubious.

The Chicago Council's survey may be open to criticism on two counts. It was largely funded by the East Asia Institute of South Korea; South Koreans often insist on nationalistic interpretations of data. Moreover, some questions about China were not asked in Vietnam, which is sensitive to its tenuous relations with China.

The survey was perhaps strongest on the complicated relations between Americans and Chinese, which "may be the most important bilateral relationship of the twenty-first century. It is certainly critically important to the future of Asia on both geostrategic and economic levels."

Positively, the report said: "More than 67,000 Chinese students studied in American universities in the
2006-07 academic year, while more than 11,000 Americans were resident on Chinese campuses."

Negatively, it said relations were "troubled by trade and human rights issues, resource competition, and China's growing military power."

The survey found "a worrisome disconnect between American perceptions of China, which have deteriorated, and mostly positive Chinese perceptions of the United States."

The surveyed showed that "Americans have very cool feelings toward China in both absolute and relative terms. On a 0 to 100 scale where 50 is neutral, Americans give China a very low average rating of 35, down from 40 in 2006 and 44 in 2004."

"Americans clearly see China as a strategic competitor," the report said. Americans rate the competitiveness of China's economy highly but think China produces inferior products in comparison to Japan and South Korea. A majority of Americans (70%) are worried that "China could become a military threat to the United States."

Americans gave China low ratings on human rights and the rule of law and its use of diplomacy to resolve problems. Americans do not think they share a way of life with the Chinese or hold values in common.

In marked disparity, Chinese views of the US were more positive, the survey found. Chinese believe that trade and investment with the US are important to their country's economy and a majority thinks the US exerts a positive influence in Asia.

Surprisingly, 63 percent of the Chinese believe the US has effectively managed tensions between China and Taiwan, the self-governing island that Beijing claims. That is surely not the view of China's rulers, who have repeatedly criticized the US for "interfering" in what they assert is an internal issue.

A plurality of Chinese (44%) would pick the US as their first overseas choice for higher education and a majority (82%) said their children should learn English. Chinese said they admired American science and technology, popular culture, entrepreneurial spirit, and political system.

On security, however, 76 percent of the Chinese worried that the US could become a military threat. Anecdotal evidence bears that out. Many Chinese have asked this correspondent: "Will there be a war between my country and yours?"

Richard Halloran, a free lance writer in Honolulu, was a military correspondent for The New York Times for ten years. He can be reached at oranhall@hawaii.rr.com

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