Strong Alliances, Divided Publics: Public Opinion in the United States, Japan, South Korea, and China

October 19, 2015

By: Karl Friedhoff, Fellow, Public Opinion and Asia Policy; Dina Smeltz, Senior Fellow, Public Opinion and Foreign Policy

Executive Summary

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.

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The opinion data suggest that a shared attachment to and confidence in the US security commitment is what ties the Korean and Japanese publics together. While majorities of South Koreans and Japanese favor the United States sending US troops to defend South Korea and Japan respectively, fewer favor the US coming to the defense of the other country. This gap is particularly stark among South Koreans, where only a minority of the public would favor US troops defending Japan.

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.

Beyond these issues within the trilateral alliance, another critical challenge is how China’s increasing influence will affect regional relations. Although public opinion in all four countries surveyed agree that China’s influence is on the rise, there are widely differing expectations for how China will wield its increased influence. Fewer than two in ten Japanese and just one-third of Americans say China will handle world problems responsibly. In contrast, a solid majority of South Koreans are confident that China will deal responsibly with world problems.

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).

The Chicago Council Survey – United States

The analysis in this report is based on data from the 2015 Chicago Council Survey of the American public on foreign policy. The 2015 Chicago Council Survey was conducted by GfK Custom Research using their large-scale, nationwide online research KnowledgePanel between May 25 and June 17, 2015 among a national sample of 2,034 adults, 18 years of age or older, living in all 50 US states and the District of Columbia. The margin of error ranges from ± 2.2 to ± 3.1 percentage points depending on the specific question.

The 2015 Chicago Council Survey is made possible by the generous support of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, the Korea Foundation, the United States-Japan Foundation and the personal support of Lester Crown and the Crown family.

Genron NPO – Japan

The Genron NPO survey in Japan was conducted from April 9 to 30, 2015 among a national sample of 1,000 adults, 18 years of age or older. The survey was fielded in 50 regions of Japan, with 20 samples from each region collected based on a quota sampling method at the individual level using 2010 census data. The survey was conducted face-to-face, with the questionnaire left with the respondent and then collected a few days later. The margin of error ranges from ±4.6 to ±6.0 percentage points depending on the specific question.

East Asia Institute – South Korea

The East Asia Institute survey in South Korea was conducted by the Han-Kook Research Company between April 17 and May 8, 2015 among a national sample of 1,010 adults, aged 18 years and older. It uses a quota sampling method based on region, gender, and age and the interviews were conducted face to face. The margin of error is ±3.1 percentage points.

Horizon Research Consultancy Group – China

Horizon Research Consultancy Group conducted the survey in China from August 25 to September 11, 2015 among an urban sample of 3,142 adults, aged 18.

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Strong Alliances, Divided Publics: Public Opinion in the United States, Japan, South Korea, and China

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