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Poll: US Power Waning in Pacific, China Rising

Lt. Col. Jim McGann, CO of Battle Group Waratah, 8th Brigade, thanks U.S. Marines and members of the Australian Army and the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force during Exercise Southern Jackaroo in Australia, May 26, 2016. Lance Cpl. Osvaldo Ortega/Marines
Lt. Col. Jim McGann, CO of Battle Group Waratah, 8th Brigade, thanks U.S. Marines and members of the Australian Army and the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force during Exercise Southern Jackaroo in Australia, May 26, 2016. Lance Cpl. Osvaldo Ortega/Marines

People across the Asia-Pacific think American power is waning and that China will dominate the region over the next decade, according to a recent survey by the University of Sydney's United States Studies Center.

However, the online poll -- which surveyed 750 people each in Australia, China, Indonesia, Japan and South Korea -- also shows that many see America's influence in the region as strong and positive.

"Respondents across the Asia-Pacific tend to agree that we are either seeing, or have seen, the high-water mark of American power," the report said. "There is a high degree of consensus that 'America's best days are in the past' ... and that China will eventually replace the United States as the world's leading superpower."

Among the countries surveyed, Australians were the most likely to report that China has the most influence in Asia today (69 percent) and the most likely to use the term "competitors" to describe the relationship between the U.S. and China (70 percent), according to the survey.

"Australia's relative distance from China -- coupled with the fact that China is Australia's largest trading partner -- sees Australia perhaps less anguished by China's rise, and Australian respondents less willing to express a strong preference for continued strong ties with the United States," the report said.

However, defense experts in Australia and the U.S. expressed skepticism about the survey.

Ross Babbage, a former Australian assistant defense secretary, said the opinions of those polled aren't shared by Australian officials.

"The U.S. has challenges, and certainly China is rising," he said. "But there is a lot of [Australian] interest in encouraging the Americans to play a stronger roll, including opening up access for American forces to operate here."

Babbage cited a Lowy Institute poll from last year that showed Australians had mostly positive feelings about the U.S., ranking it behind only the United Kingdom and New Zealand and well ahead of China.

Four out of five people surveyed by Lowy rated the U.S.-Australia alliance as very important or fairly important, according to a synopsis of the poll on Lowy's website.

Rumors of America's decline in the region are exaggerated, said Ralph Cossa of the Pacific Forum think tank in Hawaii.

"If anyone is facing hard times right now, it is China," he said. "Economically, they are in a downturn and politically they are more mistrusted than ever. Militarily, they are pushing their weight around but getting pushback from the Japanese and others."

China, though stronger than it was a decade ago, hasn't significantly closed the power gap with the U.S., he said.

"Like the Wizard of Oz, a small guy trying to cast a big shadow. It looks big if you are in the Philippines but small if you are the U.S. 7th Fleet," he said.

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