October 20, 2015 | By Karl Friedhoff, Dina Smeltz

Strong Asia Alliances, Divided Publics

US President Barack Obama meeting with President Park Geun-hye of the South Korea (L) and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan (R). REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

Officially, the trilateral relationship between the United States, Japan, and South Korea is strong, and governmental coordination and cooperation across a range of mutual interests and threats is ongoing. At the same time, mutual distrust between Japan and South Korea continue to hamper the relationship, even as the United States encourages focusing on the importance of strengthening relations among the three countries in the face of a rising China.

Public opinion among these three allied publics matches the official, government-level dynamics. Clear majorities in each country describe relations with each of the other countries as important, and majorities in all three countries support the continued presence of the US military in the region. Underneath the surface, however, there is discord between the publics that reflects larger issues affecting the solidity of the regional alliance.

One challenge is that the Japanese and South Korean publics view the security alliance as two separate, bilateral partnerships with the United States rather than as a tripartite bond. This reflects a significant level of distrust between South Korea and Japan. While majorities in both countries are confident in the United States, only minorities in South Korea and Japan are confident that the other country will responsibly handle world problems.

The second challenge for regional cooperation is how the US rebalance to Asia will develop. Although there is support for a continued US military presence, only one in ten across all three countries support an increased US military presence in the region. As the United States continues to reassure its two main Asian partners about its commitment to their defense, there is little public support for developments that would allow the United States to better meet those commitments, such as increasing US naval assets in the Asia-Pacific.

A third challenge lies further into the future, and relates to what would become of the US-Korea alliance if the two Koreas reunify. Among Americans, more than seven in ten would support maintaining the alliance.  However, four in ten Americans say that ground troops should be removed even if the alliance is maintained with a reunified Korea. The Korean public is split on what should become of US troops in Korea, with 49 percent supporting maintaining the US military presence and 44 percent opposing.

Finally, East Asia looks considerably different from the Chinese public’s perspective. While the Chinese public cites relations with the United States as most important of these three bilateral relationships, only a minority trust the United States to responsibly handle problems facing the world (45%). In contrast to opinion in South Korea and Japan, majorities in China think the US military presence in the region should be reduced (58%) and oppose the United States deploying American troops to defend regional allies in case of attack, with opposition ranging from 56 percent to 82 percent depending on the scenario. Poor relations and the potential for conflict with Japan are also concerns for Chinese (though much less so for the Japanese public than the Chinese public).

Read more in the full report, Strong Alliances, Divided Publics.

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The Chicago Council on Global Affairs highlights critical shifts in American public thinking on US foreign policy through public opinion surveys and research conducted under the Lester Crown Center on US Foreign Policy. 

The annual Chicago Council Survey, first conducted in 1974, is a valuable resource for policymakers, academics, media, and the general public. The Council also surveys American leaders in government, business, academia, think tanks, and religious organizations biennially to compare trends in their thinking with overall trends. And collaborating with partner organizations, the survey team periodically conducts parallel surveys of public opinion in other regions of the world to compare with US public opinion. 

The Running Numbers blog features regular commentary and analysis from the Council’s public opinion and US foreign policy research team, including a series of flash polls of a select group of foreign policy experts to assess their opinions on critical foreign policy topics driving the news.

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