WASHINGTON — The American public, steeped in years of cold war experience, reacted calmly and with restraint during the tense 11-day standoff with China over the detention of 24 American aviators.
Despite nationalistic rhetoric coming out of Beijing, most Americans still see China as a "competitor," not a new enemy in the style of the former Soviet Union.
A nationwide poll this week tested Americans' attitudes toward China during the final five days of the standoff over the American fliers, whose pending release was announced Wednesday.
The Christian Science Monitor/TIPP survey found most Americans take a pragmatic, nonconfrontational approach toward China and its 1.2 billion people.
"There's nothing wrong with [China] being a competitor, and that's the way it should stay," says Beverly Goodes, a retired property manager in Orlando, Fla. "I don't think we'll ever be bosom buddies, but I think we should be able to act in an adult manner and have a good trade relationship."
At the same time, Americans indicated they would brook no aggressive behavior on the part of China toward Taiwan, a longtime friend of the United States. By a 38-percent to 29-percent margin, they said if China attacked Taiwan, the US should come to Taiwan's aid militarily.
The Monitor/TIPP survey was conducted by telephone from April 6 to 10, and included interviews with 949 Americans age 18 and above. The margin of error was plus or minus 3.2 percent.
Trade comes first
Many Americans appear to view China primarily in terms of trade, rather than either a potential friend or foe.
"I don't think we're particularly friendly with each other," says Claudia Lowder, a lawyer who specializes in antitrust cases in the San Francisco area. "We're both interested in having trade between our two countries, and I think we're highly suspicious of each other's military powers."
As for the current US-China relationship, in which American firms invest billions of dollars in new factories in China, Ms. Lowder says that China is definitely benefiting more than America. She says:
"They seem to be getting [the economic benefits] without making any concessions on human rights. I think they should make more concessions than they have so far."
By and large, other Americans seem to agree. By an overwhelming 53 percent to 15 percent margin, those interviewed said that China stands to gain more from the current US-China relationship.
Eventually, the long-term relationship between China and the US could hinge on the future of Taiwan, which China considers to be a breakaway province.
Taiwan's 22 million people have developed a democratically elected government and one of the world's freest economies.
But China has vowed to bring Taiwan back under its umbrella - sooner rather than later.
The Taiwan impasse colors US-China relations, and could eventually lead to a military showdown over the status of the island. In recent years, China has steadily built up its military forces, including ballistic missiles, directly across the Formosa Strait from Taiwan.
Views on Taiwan
In the Monitor/TIPP poll, Americans walked a fine line on the Taiwan issue. Though many are willing to support Taiwan if it were attacked, they say by a solid 49-percent to 27-percent margin that they would not support the American sale of advanced, high-tech weapons to Taiwan's military.
Neil Hurley, a father of two sons in San Francisco, reflects this caution about beefing up Taiwan's armed forces.
"It depends on the weapons and the circumstances that surround the sale," he says.
But Mr. Hurley has confidence that Washington will make the right decision: "I trust [Secretary of State] Colin Powell and [Defense Secretary] Dick Cheney," he says. "Those guys are very competent."
Three other aspects of the survey on China and Taiwan stand out.
First, many Americans are undecided about the US-China relationship. Across all age groups, there were significant numbers of people who said they simply didn't know enough about China or Taiwan to form an intelligent response.
Second, there appears to be a significant difference in the way Americans of various ages see the US-China relationship.
Older Americans - those above 45 - are considerably more hawkish when it comes to militarily defending Taiwan against China, or selling Taiwan high-tech weapons. On the other hand, Americans under 25 were the only age group that opposed helping Taiwan, even if it were attacked.
Third, there appear to be regional variations in US opinion on China. The South and the West were more suspicious of China, and more willing to defend Taiwan.
Raghavan Mayur, the president of TIPP, a unit of TechnoMetrica Market Intelligence, conducted the poll for the Monitor.
He says opposition to arms sales for Taiwan probably stems from Americans' concern that selling weapons could exacerbate tensions in the region. Even so, if it comes to a war, Americans seem to tilt in favor of helping democratic Taiwan.
Staff writer Steven Savides contributed to this report.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor