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Pew Research Centre data suggests China has made significant soft power gains, particularly in Canada

On August 23, 2017, the Pew Research Centre released data which suggests that the United States and China (rather than Russia) are the most-favorably viewed global superpowers. Both China and the U.S. are approximately equal in global popularity: China is more popular in the Middle East and Latin America, while the U.S. retains influence in Europe and the Asia Pacific regions. Of the countries surveyed, America and China were equally popular in Africa. In comparison to previous years, however, American influence has decreased significantly, particularly in countries that were traditionally long-standing allies.

Significantly, China has overtaken U.S. popularity in several countries: Kenya, Germany, France, Brazil, Sweden, the UK and Canada. 48% of Canadian respondents viewed China favourably, while only 43% of Canadians viewed America favourably. This data is consistent with the 2017 National Opinion poll conducted by the Asia Pacific Foundation, which found that 50% of Canadians supported increased economic engagement with China, and 68% of Canadians believe China can be a global leader in economic issues.

Similarly, data collected by the China Institute’s 2017 Albertan Survey finds that 50% of Albertans believe that strengthening engagement with China will benefit Alberta, and 60% of Albertans want to build stronger ties with China. China is viewed significantly more favourably by Albertans in 2017 than in 2015.

This shift can be explained in two ways: first, by a relative increase in China’s soft power. Over the last several years, President Xi Jinping has engaged in a broad international engagement platform to ingratiate China toward its global partners. For example, President Xi’s proposed Belt and Road initiative has sparked global and regional interest, and has boosted China’s economic and social profile. The initiative seeks to increase regional trade and connectivity by a series of infrastructure investments to connect the ancient Silk Road Economic Belt and Maritime Silk Road. The Belt and Road initiative is intended to promote economic interconnectivity, as well as energy and political security between Asia, the Middle East, Eurasia, Africa, and Europe. It has received unprecedented media coverage in many countries, and provides the means through which China may exert global influence and leadership, while advancing China’s strategic goals in key regions of the world.

The significant change in global perception can also be explained by a decrease in American influence following the 2016 national election. Another Pew Research Centre survey suggests that, of 37 countries surveyed, a median 22% of respondents have confidence that President Donald Trump will do the right thing, while 64% of respondents reported confidence in President Barrack Obama to do the right thing. In countries where confidence in the U.S. president declined the most, America’s overall image significantly declined as well: Canada’s overall view of America has declined between 20-30% since President Trump’s election. Given President Trump’s radical diplomatic style, and his lack of popularity with global audiences, it seems likely that Canadian perceptions of America may continue to decline in the foreseeable future.

As American influence declines in global popular opinion, Canadians, and specifically Albertans, may look beyond traditional economic partnerships in order to increase access to diversified markets. Given China’s increasingly globalized profile as both an economic and political leader, it seems likely that Canadian engagement with China may increase in the coming months and years.

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