The importance of China to global business and overseas governments is underlined by a new survey of global opinion leaders, which found a growing belief that China is outstripping the US, Europe and the rest of Asia in economic and trade terms.

Respondents say China is the most strategically important market to the country where their business is headquartered. On the basis of a scale of one to five, with one being the most important, China tops the ranking with an average rating of 1.84, ahead of the U.S. (2.18), Asia excluding China (2.63), the European Union (2.72), Latin America (3.67) and Africa (4.41).

In fact, nearly half of all respondents rank China as top economic priority for their own country, according to the 2011 China Public Affairs Dialogue survey “Trade, Investment and China’s 12th Five-Year Plan,” which was conducted by PublicAffairsAsia and Edelman among senior managers and government relations professionals working in corporations, government and trade related bodies.

According to Mark Hass, president of Edelman China: “It’s clear that key corporate players view China as the core part of their growth strategy. With a recession looming in Europe and the U.S. economy weak, big business views China as the bright light at the end of a gloomy global economic tunnel.”

The third annual Dialogue research finds that nearly eight in 10 (77 percent) of respondents are “optimistic” or “very optimistic” about the future for economic and trade developments between China, Europe and the United States. By contrast, just two in 10 are “pessimistic” and zero respondents reported being “very pessimistic” about future ties.

But despite China’s rise in global strategic importance, the survey also discovers increased concern about the country’s regulatory and legislative landscape - and highlights fears that the 12th Five-Year Plan could result in more state control of business and industry.

China's 12th Five-Year Plan sets out short, medium and long-term policies and objectives for the PRC's economic, social and infrastructural development. Some 77 percent of respondents believed that the current round of economic and trade reforms will result in “greater engagement by the government in the development of industry and the economy.”

The net impact of the government's program is a greater need for public affairs and government relations activity by MNCs operating in the PRC, according to the survey. Ninety-one percent believe it is now more important for foreign companies in China to have "structured government relations strategies operating as core aspects of business planning." Seven in 10 survey respondents also believe that their company's government relations and public affairs activity is set to rise in coming years.