After a rocky four years of Trump’s foreign policy, one of President Joe Biden’s key goals is to reassure Pacific allies and build a consensus on how to approach China. Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s visit to the White House as the first foreign leader to meet with President Biden, on the heels of high-level visits last month by Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin to Tokyo and Seoul, are very visible signals of that objective. Surveys among both the American and Japanese publics reflect the great value both peoples place on the bilateral relationship, but the United States may have to make up for some distrust related to the policies of the last U.S. administration. Moreover, the Japanese do not want to blindly follow the U.S. line when it comes to U.S.-China tensions, preferring to push for cooperative rather than confrontational stances.
Americans are Steadfast Fans of Japan
The joint statement released after the Biden-Suga meeting stated that the moment marked a renewal of the U.S.-Japan alliance “that has become a cornerstone of peace and security in the Indo-Pacific region and around the world.” American opinion of Japan and the bilateral alliance should add further reassurance to Tokyo’s importance to U.S. policy. Since the 1990s, Chicago Council on Global Affairs surveys have shown that Americans have increasingly grown more favorable toward Japan. The last two surveys, conducted in 2021 and 2020, have registered the highest favorability ratings yet for Japan (an average of 65 degrees on a scale ranging from the chilliest 0 to the warmest 100). Eight in ten also consider Japan more of a partner (81 percent) than a rival (15 percent).
Tempered Japanese Views After Trump Years
But Japanese views of the United States may need some time to rebound. Former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was an impressive Trump whisperer and his relationship with the controversial American president was better than many other allied leaders. But the Japanese people were less impressed with the forty-fifth U.S. president. Pew surveys found that Japanese confidence in the Trump plunged from 78 percent in 2016 to just 24 percent in 2017. That reading remained low throughout the Trump presidency (25 percent in 2020).
While Japanese opinion of the United States originally stayed fairly positive and at majority levels until 2019, by 2020 only 41 percent expressed a favorable view of the country—the lowest ever reported in Pew surveys since the question was first asked in 2002. The drop could be related to a perfect storm of Trump administration statements about Tokyo and other allies “freeloading” on U.S. security guarantees, U.S. demands for Tokyo and Seoul to pay more for host nation funding, and the perceptions of the Trump administration’s mishandling of the Covid-19 pandemic.
If history is any indication, there may be room for Japanese opinion to bounce back. Japanese confidence in George W. Bush was similarly low by the end of his term in 2008 and rebounded to majority levels once Obama took office (85 percent in 2009 Pew polling). But back then, opinion of the United States only ever dropped as low as 50 percent.
Navigating U.S.-China Tensions
In the Rose Garden on Friday, Biden noted that the two leaders are “committed to working together to take on the challenges from China and on issues like the East China Sea, the South China Sea, as well as North Korea, to ensure the future of a free and open Indo-Pacific.” As far as the publics are concerned, both Americans and Japanese have soured on China. In Chicago Council surveys, American attitudes toward China are at all-time lows (an average temperature reading of 33 degrees out of 100); Pew surveys find similarly rock-bottom favorability of China among the Japanese public (9 percent, down from 55 percent in 2002). And both publics distrust Chinese leader Xi Jinping: 77 percent of Americans and 84 percent of Japanese, lack confidence in him to do the right thing in world affairs.
With the China question persisting between the Trump and Biden transitions, Americans want to hold allies Japan and South Korea close. A clear majority say the United States should focus on reinforcing U.S. relations with traditional allies even if it diminishes U.S. relations with China (74 percent). And Japan, in particular, stands out as an important partner for the United States, as three-quarters of Americans also consider U.S. relations with Japan important to the United States (78 percent).
The Japanese people also perceive China to be a military threat (63 percent) to their country and the Japanese public may feel reassured by Suga’s comment that he and Biden had “serious talks on China’s influence over the peace and prosperity of the Indo-Pacific, and the world at large.” In fact, the Biden administration has also carefully, and repeatedly, confirmed that the U.S. defense commitment to Japan extends to the Senkaku Islands, administered by Japan but claimed by China. A rising percentage of Americans are willing to send U.S. troops to defend Japan if it ends up in a conflict with Beijing over disputed islands (44 percent, up from 33 percent in 2015), though a majority (53 percent) want to steer clear of a clash with the increasingly formidable Chinese military.
However, Suga also noted that he and Biden agreed “on the necessity for each of us to engage in frank dialogue with China, and in so doing, to pursue stability of international relations, while upholding universal values.” Given the geographical proximity and extensive economic relationship between Japan and China, Japan’s best path forward in an environment of rising U.S.-China tensions is unclear. The public is equally unsure: in Genron-NPO polling, many Japanese say they are unsure what the best approach is to navigate U.S.-China tensions (38 percent). Of the rest, a plurality wants to promote cooperative relationships and minimize the effect of U.S.-China tensions (37 percent). Very few want to feel pressured to align to U.S. policies at the expense of relations with China (14 percent).
Japanese Consider Pyongyang a Bigger Threat than Beijing
While a majority in Japan share U.S. concerns about China, they are even more concerned about North Korea. According to Genron polls, eight in ten say that North Korea (81 percent) is a military threat. Interestingly, 31 percent feel threatened by Russia, and about one in ten feel the same way about South Korea (13 percent), the United States (11 percent), and the Middle East (7 percent).
Americans seem to understand Japanese alarm about North Korea’s potential to harm Japan: majorities of Americans say they would support using U.S. troops to defend Japan if it was attacked by North Korea (64 percent) and support the long-term U.S. military presence in Japan (59 percent). More broadly, six in ten Americans think the U.S. alliance in Asia has benefitted either the United States or both the United States and allied partners (59 percent total).
Will Transition Relieve the Hangover?
It is a time of leadership transition for both the United States and Japan and also for a reset of U.S. policy in Asia. The meeting between Biden and Suga is an opportunity to make up for lost ground from the last four years and to signal that the United States “is back” in the Pacific. But a deeper question is how to reassure publics in allied countries that U.S. commitment and credibility as an ally will have staying power from one administration to the next? This will be a challenge to public opinion and leadership in many countries, not just Japan.
Dina Smeltz is a senior fellow of public opinion and foreign policy at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.
Craig Kafura is assistant director for public opinion and foreign policy at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, a Truman National Security Fellow, and a Pacific Forum Young Leader. Follow him on Twitter @ckafura.