June 11, 2001

Modest Support for Missile Defense, No Panic on China

Introduction and Summary

As George W. Bush makes his first overseas trip as president, he has the backing of the American public on a pair of high-profile security and foreign policy issues. The public favors his call for developing a national missile defense system and feels he is taking the right tack in handling relations with China. And most Americans like the tone of his foreign policy so far.

The latest nationwide poll by the Pew Research Center, which was conducted in collaboration with the Council on Foreign Relations, finds modest support for Bush’s proposed missile defense system. The 51%-38% margin in favor of missile defense is comparable to results from two other Center surveys over the past year. The current survey also found no significant change in support for the system when the concept was retested after respondents were exposed to arguments for and against missile defense.

The survey shows a greater level of public awareness of arguments opposing missile defense than those favoring it. Fully 60% have heard that the program might be too costly, and nearly half are aware of concerns that building a missile defense system could trigger a new arms race and damage relations with Russia and China.

Fewer have heard the arguments, made by missile defense proponents, that such a system would protect the United States from attacks by rogue nations and accidental launches and could also be used to defend American allies. Despite the gap in awareness, however, majorities see these as important reasons to support the program; in contrast, no argument against the proposal draws majority support.

Still, Americans by an overwhelming 77%-10% margin express more concern about a terrorist bringing weapons into the United States than about the possibility of a missile attack by an unfriendly nation. Moreover, a 53% majority still believes the nation is best protected by treaties aimed at limiting the arms race, while just 34% say that missile defense provides the best protection.

Republicans, especially conservatives, are core supporters of missile defense and they favor it to a greater extent than liberal Democrats oppose it. In fact, on balance, Democrats lean toward favoring the system with liberal Democrats evenly divided over it.

The telephone survey of 1,468 adults, conducted May 15-28, also found generally moderate views about China. Public alarm about China has not increased in spite of the recent rise in bilateral tensions over the spy plane incident. As in previous surveys, most see China as at least a serious problem, but only one-in-five call it an adversary. Similarly, even though as many as 40% recognize that relations between the two countries have worsened, the proportion who see China’s emergence as a world power as a threat to the United States has not increased over the past two years.

At the same time, Americans are broadly skeptical that China is becoming more democratic, or even more free market oriented. The public is also pessimistic that U.S. foreign policy can have much of an impact on what goes on inside China. More than half in the survey said that it is simply not possible for the United States’ policies to make a difference in that area. In turn, 59% say maintaining good relations with the world’s most populous nation is more important than promoting democracy and human rights there. And there is scant support for pledging to come to Taiwan’s defense in the event of an attack by the mainland. A solid majority — including 53% of Republicans — oppose such a U.S. commitment.

Overall, a 46% plurality believe that Bush is taking the right approach with China, while 34% say he has been too soft. In this regard, Bush’s marks are not dramatically different than those his predecessor, Bill Clinton, received in March 2000. As one might expect, a strong element of partisanship is evident in these measures. Still, fewer Democrats say that Bush has not been tough enough on China, compared to the number of Republicans who felt that way about Clinton when he was president.

Overall, Bush’s foreign policy gets fair grades from the public. Most (54%) say they disagree with critics who feel the new president’s policies are too aggressive, and 51% say he is working hard enough to have a peaceful relationship with other countries.

Following the Center’s analysis of the survey findings is an opinion on opinions by Morton H. Halperin, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. Mr. Halperin’s views are his own and do not represent those of the Pew Research Center or the Council on Foreign Relations.