New Poll Shows Underlying Strength of U.S.-Japan Alliance, Need for Greater Confidence

By Michael Green

U.S.-Japan Friendship Fan.  Source: Eric Golub's flickr photostream, used under a creative commons license.

U.S.-Japan Friendship Fan. Source: Eric Golub’s flickr photostream, used under a creative commons license.

If Chinese scholars and policymakers read the new Yomiuri/Gallup polling data, they would recognize how strong the U.S.-Japan alliance is. Unfortunately, Chinese scholars are generally very cautious about using public opinion polls in their research compared with their counterparts in open democratic societies like the United States and Japan. And precisely because the United States and Japan allow open debate, we should take confidence from this recent polling data, but also challenge ourselves to think about the weak points in the alliance.

Strong alliances are based on common perceptions of external challenges and mutual bilateral trust internally. In terms of external threat perception, 87% of Japanese in this poll say that their relations with China are not good and Americans’ views of the U.S.-China relationship are trending in the same direction. Sixty-two percent of Americans say China is a military threat compared with 78% of Japanese who feel that way. These polls were taken around the time China announced its new air defense identification zone, which was big news in the United States, and I suspect the American threat perception toward China will only have increased in the past few weeks. So while Japanese feel relatively more threatened by China, the American people are not far behind. The Obama administration has emphasized reassurance of China more than many in the Abe government find appropriate, and this has caused some disconnect between Washington and Tokyo at times. However, I do not think there is a fundamental gap in how the United States and Japan view the need for deterrence and dissuasion vis-a-vis China, and this polling reinforces that conclusion.

Many Japanese experts worry that China’s growing economic power will cause “Japan Passing” by the United States. The poll results might seem to reinforce that impression, but deserve closer scrutiny. For example, while 55% of Americans say China will be more important country politically for the United States compared with only 40% who say Japan, only 32% of Americans say China can be trusted while 65% say Japan can be trusted. In other words, China may be more important, but that is also because China is causing more problems. The natural partner for the United States in Asia is Japan, and the American people know that. It is not a question of choosing between Japan and China, but rather how the United States and Japan as allies can work together to ensure that China is a trustworthy and beneficial partner to us both going forward.

One striking similarity in American and Japanese responses was the confidence both peoples expressed in their militaries: 78% for Japanese and 91% for Americans. The U.S. military and Japan’s Self-Defense Forces are the most trusted institutions in both countries. It is high time that they should be able to operate together more effectively based on Japan’s right to collective self-defense.

In addition to the military pillar of our alliance, the United States and Japan stand together because of the economic relationship, which is actually covered in Article II of the 1960 U.S.-Japan Security Treaty. TPP is now the most important trade policy undertaking for both countries. Successful completion of the agreement will lock the United States and Japan together as leaders in rule-making for the Asia-Pacific region as a whole. Trade agreements are never easy, though, and press coverage tends to emphasize the opposition rather than the support domestically. Perhaps reflecting that fact, both Americans and Japanese are somewhat on the fence about TPP. Thirty-five percent of Americans say TPP will be very good or somewhat good compared with 31% who say somewhat bad or very bad; while in Japan 33% say TPP will be very or somewhat good and 36% say very or somewhat bad. What this shows is that President Obama has to catch up to Prime Minister Abe in terms of making the case for TPP and free trade more generally. His negotiators are working hard, but he has political homework and has generally avoided talking about TPP in his own speeches about economics.

The poll highlights one troublesome dimension of U.S.-Japan relations. A record 72% of Japanese respondents said that they did not trust South Korea compared with only 41% of Americans who felt they could not trust South Korea. Tension between Seoul and Tokyo complicate U.S. foreign policy because it tempts China or North Korea to think they can drive a wedge between the democratic countries in their region. In Washington one of the hottest topics among Asia experts is what to do about the Japan-Korea relationship and this was also a major theme in the meetings Vice President Joe Biden held in Tokyo and Seoul. The very low trust the Japanese people have in Korea—and similar numbers hold about Japan in Korea—are a serious challenge for the United States. They should also be a subject of concern for the Abe administration, which should take steps to reverse this negative trend.

Finally, this poll reveals once again that the Japanese people are their own worst critics. In the survey only 17% of Americans thought Japan’s influence was declining while 35% said it was growing. In contrast, 43% of Japanese thought their own countries’ influence had declined and only 12% thought it had increased. This was one of the biggest gaps in American and Japanese views and suggests that Japan should have more confidence in its influence overseas. Other polls conducted by BBC, the Samsung Institute and the Chicago Council on Global Affairs all show that Japan has far more soft power than the Japanese people themselves recognize.

Dr. Michael J. Green is senior vice president for Asia and Japan Chair at CSIS. He is also an associate professor of international relations at Georgetown University. This post first appeared as a column in the Yomiuri Shimbun on December 16, 2013. Re-posted with permission.

Michael J. Green

Michael J. Green

Dr. Michael Green is senior vice president for Asia and Japan Chair at CSIS. He is also an associate professor of international relations and director for Asian studies at Georgetown University.


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