WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Recession fears at home and shifting power and economic slowdown abroad raise questions about the United States' role in the global economy, and more generally, its place in the world. Some observers say the United States has already lost its status as an economic superpower, and whether it will lose its status as the leading superpower is less a question of if than of when and to whom. China's rising star makes it a candidate to take this position from the United States, and residents of several Asian countries are more likely to say China will replace the United States as the leading superpower than they are to say this will never happen.
Recent Gallup surveys in 13 Asian countries show that substantial numbers of residents expect China to replace the United States as the leading superpower within the next 50 years or less. Many of those surveyed don't have an opinion on the matter; the median "don't know/refused" percentage across the 13 countries is 42% -- a percentage not surprising given high rural populations. However, the median percentage of those who think China will replace the United States in the next 50 years or less is 38%, almost twice the median 20% who think China will never replace the United States.
At least half of Laotians, Singaporeans, and Bangladeshis think China will replace the United States as a leading superpower in 50 years or less, while more than 4 in 10 Malaysians, Thais, and Mongolians share this sentiment. Filipinos and Cambodians, on the other hand, are the most likely to say this is something that will never happen; 70% and 43% do so, respectively.
Geography, proximity, and regional trade relationships likely play considerable roles in fostering the mindset of Chinese dominance. "China is definitely a force to be reckoned with in the neighborhood," says Susan Shirk, noted East Asian affairs expert and author of the new book China: Fragile Superpower. "The United States is thousands of miles away, and even when it's doing its best in its diplomacy, there are always going to be doubts about the staying power of the United States, especially on the military side."
In addition, Shirk says, the United States has not done a good job with its regional diplomacy in the past eight years and has been absent from the movement to build multilateral organizations. "For a whole variety of reasons, we haven't done a very effective job in diplomacy," Shirk says. "Meanwhile, China has invested a tremendous amount of effort . . . What you're seeing [in the survey results] is that they are doing a very good job."
Approval of U.S. vs. Chinese Leadership
These dynamics may also be at play in respondents' ratings of the leadership of the United States and China. In 8 of the 13 countries surveyed, respondents were more likely to approve of China's leadership than that of the United States. Median approval of U.S. leadership is 34%, compared with 46% median approval for China's leadership.
Majorities in nine countries surveyed say closer relations with China would be a "good thing" for their countries. This sentiment is most prevalent in Laos (79%), Nepal (81%), and Bangladesh (78%). Filipinos and Mongolians are the most likely to say closer relationships would be a "bad thing" for their countries, with 3 in 10 respondents saying this.
Because the Phillippines is an island country, Shirk believes that its residents do not feel the same positive magnetic pull from China. But Mongolians may fear the risk of becoming dependent on China and worry that they are being "smothered" as Chinese economic domination gets stronger and stronger.
Looking to the Future
Shujie Yao, professor of economics and Chinese sustainable development at the University of Nottingham in the United Kingdom, says while China will be a big power in the future and perhaps become a superpower, he does not believe it will be as big as the United States. Economically, assuming all things stay the same, he does believe China will outgrow the United States.
"However, this does not mean that China will be leading the United States," he says. "China has a bigger population than the United States, but Chinese citizens are not as wealthy as U.S. citizens. It's also unlikely that China will lead the United States in technology and innovation, which are another way to growth in the 21st century.
And, because China is largely still an authoritarian regime, politically, the U.S. would be more acceptable to wider spectrum of economies and states, especially in Europe and Japan."
Survey MethodsResults are based on face-to-face interviews conducted in India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Laos, Mongolia, Pakistan, Vietnam, Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines throughout 2007 with nationally representative samples of residents aged 15 and older. For results based on approximate samples of 1,000 adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±3 percentage points.