By Jason McMann
November 16, 2021 at 6:00 pm ET
Eighty-four percent of U.S. voters want to reduce bilateral tensions with China, per a Morning Consult survey conducted just before Monday’s Biden-Xi summit.
Voters rank bilateral economic tensions — and those over tariffs in particular — as far more important to resolve than military tensions over Taiwan.
Voters’ overriding preference for dialing down economic tensions and their favorability toward limited restrictions on Chinese companies doing business in the United States (as opposed to outright bans) will be near-term positives for both countries’ multinationals.
American and Chinese companies seeking greater stability in bilateral market access and trade barriers should press the Biden administration on these grounds.
Xi Said, He Said
Eighty-four percent of U.S. voters want to reduce bilateral tensions with China, according to a new Morning Consult survey conducted just before Monday’s Biden-Xi summit. Voters care more about resolving economic issues than addressing military tensions over Taiwan and human rights concerns in Xinjiang and Hong Kong.
This finding, along with voters’ favorability toward limiting restrictions on Chinese companies doing business in the United States, will be near-term positives for American and Chinese multinationals doing business on both sides of the Pacific.
Voters are tired of tensions between the United States and China
U.S. voters are overwhelmingly enthusiastic about dialing down U.S.-China tensions amid Monday’s virtual summit between U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping. Eighty-four percent of voters agree that the United States and China should work to reduce political and economic tensions between them, and 81% agree they should work hard to avoid direct military conflict, with consistent support across party lines.
Voters’ enthusiasm for reducing tensions is aligned with U.S. and Chinese officials’ rationale for holding the summit: President Biden billed it as an opportunity to “ensure that the competition between our countries does not veer into conflict” and “establish common-sense guardrails,” while President Xi noted that “China and the United States need to increase communication and cooperation.” U.S. and Chinese officials subsequently described the talks as “open” and “positive.”
U.S. voters want to dial down tensions across all hot-button issues discussed at the summit, despite the lack of concrete policy announcements
Predictably, the Biden-Xi summit did not yield major policy announcements. But U.S. voters are exceptionally unified in their desire to dial down tensions across major issues discussed at the meeting, including trade practices, relations with Taiwan and human rights concerns in Xinjiang and Hong Kong. Nearly 7 in 10 U.S. voters think it is important to resolve tensions in these and other areas, and support is again consistent across party lines.
U.S. voters care more about resolving economic tensions with China than military tensions or human rights concerns
While tensions surrounding both sides’ relationships with Taiwan received more mentions in the White House post-summit readout than economic and trade relations, our data suggests the Biden administration’s emphasis on Taiwan is misguided as a domestic political consideration. More U.S. voters view resolving economic tensions linked to trade and tariffs — and to a lesser degree, restrictions on American and Chinese companies doing business in each other’s markets — as their overriding concerns.
By contrast, U.S. voters’ concerns over military tensions, including relations with Taiwan, fall much further down the list. Voters continue to rank economic relations as the more pressing priority even when those are the only two options on the table (78 percent versus 22 percent for concerns over both sides’ relationships with Taiwan).
In a potential blow to the Biden administration’s desire to press China on human rights, voters’ interest in resolving concerns over Xinjiang and Hong Kong ranks even lower.
Voters’ support for resolving economic tensions opens the door to near-term wins for American and Chinese companies
With economic concerns a top priority for many U.S. voters, their support for resolving trade- and tariff-related tensions, and their favorability toward limited bans on Chinese companies operating in the United States, offer opportunities for multinationals operating on both sides of the Pacific to push for near-term policy stability, if not relief.
Per our Nov. 2 brief, Democrats and independents are particularly sensitive to the inflationary impact of tariffs. Recent high inflation means Biden will face even more pressure to compromise on the tariff front ahead of the 2022 midterms. Our latest survey tells a similar story about public sentiment toward U.S. restrictions on Chinese companies: Voters broadly favor selective bans that limit Chinese companies’ access to the U.S. market on the basis of national security concerns (or auditing requirements in the case of stock market listings) as opposed to outright bans.
These findings are a near-term positive for American and Chinese multinationals doing business in each other’s markets. As long as economic tensions get resolved, voters are less likely to care if tensions over both sides’ relations with Taiwan linger over the long-term.
American and Chinese companies seeking greater stability in bilateral market access and trade barriers should press the Biden administration on these grounds, specifically by suggesting that the White House more explicitly repudiate outright market access bans. Doing so would benefit U.S. companies operating in China, given the latter’s penchant for mirroring U.S. market access restrictions (as previously occurred with tariffs). It would also offer the Biden administration a straightforward policy option to reduce economic tensions with China without alienating voters ahead of the 2022 midterms.
Jason McMann is Head of Geopolitical Risk Analysis for Morning Consult. He leverages the company's high-frequency survey intelligence to advise clients on how to integrate geopolitical risk into their decision-making.