In the Asia-Pacific region, the United States has no closer ally than Japan. The American public at large fully supports Japan’s measured steps to make a more proactive contribution to peace and security. If the United States has any concerns about Japan, they center on the need for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to take decisive action (deregulations and other economic measures) to ensure the long-term viability of the world’s third-largest economy.
U.S.-Japan relations are in prime condition. As was also seen last year, a majority of Japanese and half of Americans polled described relations as “good.” More importantly, the alliance detractors are a distinct minority: Just 1 in 10 Americans and 2 in 10 Japanese polled depicted relations as “poor.”
The survey question regarding reactions to Japan’s newly enacted security legislation highlights one of the notable contrasts in alliance public opinion. On the one hand, not even 40 percent of Japanese support the newly enacted security legislation. From my vantage point, the prime minister has incurred a temporary political cost for moving so swiftly to bring about a new legal framework to bolster Japan’s security stature. He has done so without having to promise binding new commitments overseas and even without a steep increase in defense spending. The Japanese public should be applauding the legislation.
The fact that the vast majority of Americans approve the new legislation underscores that the United States wants and expects its allies to shoulder more defense burdens, both for their direct security and for the larger global good.
But for myriad reasons, public support for an activist Japanese international security role remains relatively soft. Less than 20 percent of Japanese think Tokyo should be more active in helping to settle international disputes, even while 83 percent of Japanese like the idea of the United States being active in the South China Sea.
From my viewpoint, the Japanese public is lagging behind the strong leadership and vision of Prime Minister Abe. One sign of hope that the Japanese public could be as keen as the prime minister to play an active international role relates to the U.N. Security Council. More than two-thirds of those polled from both allies would like to see Japan become a permanent member.
Another important insight from the poll relates to different public threat perceptions. The poll reminds us that even close allies almost never have identical interests. From a Japanese perspective, the immediate and proximate pressures from an assertive and growing China and a nuclear-armed North Korea remain top concerns. They are very serious concerns for the United States, too, and probably higher than indicated by public opinion. For both Japan and the United States, Russia poses an ascending threat, because revisionist great powers are a challenge to global order regardless of whether they are rising (like China) or declining (like Russia).
Finally, there is the matter of how to view a reemerging and more assertive China. The poll appears to accurately capture the current moods in each country. In Japan, public opinion sees a slight thaw in tensions with China. In the United States, there is growing concern about China’s cyberhacking and maritime adventurism in the South and East China Seas. Whereas most Japanese are united in one viewpoint, however, Americans remain more broadly divided when it comes to China. Some are focused on the rising threat posed by China’s rapidly modernizing military forces, while others are focused on seizing opportunities to manage the global economy and begin addressing complex transnational issues such as climate change.
The bottom line is that the poll is highly informative about the state of relations and varying viewpoints. The best news is that U.S.-Japan relations clearly rest on a strong foundation of public support.