Almost as many people in Japan view the U.S. as a “major threat” as those who view an increasingly antagonistic China as a significant global concern, a new poll has found.
The survey, conducted between May and August last year by the Washington-based Pew Research Center and released Sunday, found that climate change was the top international security concern, with 13 of the 28 nations surveyed singling it out.
For Japan, climate change was the No. 2-ranked threat, behind cyberattacks from other countries.
But it was the surprising shift in perceptions of the United States under President Donald Trump — among Japan and other nations — that was “the largest change in sentiment among the global threats tracked.”
“In 2013, only a quarter across 22 nations saw American power as a major threat to their country, but that jumped substantially to 38 percent in 2017, the year after Trump was elected president, and to 45 percent in 2018,” according to the poll.
“In fact, in 18 of the 22 countries surveyed in both 2013, when Barack Obama was the U.S. president, and 2018, there has been a statistically significant increase in those who name the U.S. as a major threat,” it added.
This included an increase of 17 percentage points for Japan, as well as 30 percentage points in Germany, 29 points in France and 26 points in Brazil and Mexico.
The survey also said there was “a strong connection between seeing America as a threat and lack of confidence in … Trump.
“In 17 of the countries surveyed, people who have little or no confidence in the U.S. president are more likely than those who do have confidence in Trump to name U.S. power and influence as a top threat,” it said.
This difference, it added, “is most acute among America’s traditional allies,” such as Japan, Canada, the U.K. and Australia, where overall views of the U.S. and its president have plummeted in recent years.
According to the poll, China’s growing power and influence ranked at the bottom of the threat list among all countries surveyed, although roughly half or more in Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Australia and the U.S. named Beijing as a major threat. In Japan, 69 percent viewed China as such, compared with 66 percent who viewed the U.S. similarly. Still, since 2013 perceptions of China as a threat have surged in four of the Asia-Pacific nations surveyed in the region — particularly in Australia, up 20 percentage points, and Indonesia, up 16.
Sino-Japanese relations have thawed in recent months, though Beijing still routinely sends vessels near the Japanese-administered, Chinese-claimed Senkaku Islands, known as the Diaoyu in China, and often blasts Tokyo over historical issues related to World War II.
Kristi Govella, an assistant professor with the Asian Studies Program at the University of Hawaii, urged caution when interpreting the poll.
“It is important to look at ambiguous phrases such as ‘major threat’ and think about the way that they are interpreted by the respondents,” Govella said. “Although similar proportions of Japanese respondents reported viewing the U.S. and China as ‘major threats,’ Japanese respondents are likely responding to the economic and military rise of their neighbor, while the threat posed by the U.S. is probably seen as emanating from its recent policy instability toward the region, which creates very different kinds of challenges for Japan.”
The two threats “are not qualitatively equivalent and should not be interpreted as such, but the increase in concern about the U.S. is certainly noteworthy,” she said, adding that while this may not be a sign of long-lasting change, “it will take time and concerted effort to rebuild the trust that has been lost in the region.”
Tetsuo Kotani, an associate professor at Meikai University in Chiba Prefecture, said the Japanese public views the U.S. as a major threat because of its unwillingness to defend the international system it created, while at the same time pursuing Trump’s “America First” policy.
“Many Asian countries feel the same anxiety,” Kotani said. “Unless future U.S. presidents show more willingness and perceive responsibility toward the rules-based international order, the damage would not be reversible.”
Jeffrey Hornung, a political scientist with the Rand Corp., echoed this view.
“I don’t think it speaks to waning U.S. influence, but it definitely speaks of changing perceptions of how the U.S. wields its power. Whether rightly or wrongly, many people in the Indo-Pacific have grown concerned about the U.S. and what kind of power it claims to be.”
Hornung said many of these nations are “confused” about the current White House occupant’s “proclivity for nondemocratic leaders” and criticism of its traditional democratic allies.
“Worse, given critical comments of treaty allies and withdrawals from international agreements that many in the region had supported, there are growing concerns about whether the U.S. will actually fulfill its commitments,” Hornung added.
Under Trump, the U.S. has bolted from or threatened to leave a number of agreements, including the Trans-Pacific Partnership free-trade pact and the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty arms-control deal with Russia — a move some experts say could lead to a future arms race with China.
Japan and the U.S., meanwhile, were among four nations where people viewed cyberattacks from other countries as their top international concern.
Japan’s National Institute of Information and Communications Technology said in 2017 that a record 128.1 billion cyberattacks against networks in the country had been detected in 2016, more than double the number seen the previous year. Many of the attacks were said to have been launched from China and the United States, according to the group.
Overall, the survey noted a substantial jump in those who see such cyberattacks as a top threat. In 2018 a median of 61 percent across the countries saw cyberthreats as a serious concern, up from 54 percent who said this in 2017.
Despite the growing sense of detente on the Korean Peninsula and ongoing denuclearization talks between Washington and Pyongyang, people among all nations surveyed expressed fears about North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. But among the 26 countries, none rated it as a top concern.
In South Korea, more rated China’s power as a major threat — 82 percent — than the North’s nuclear weapons program, at 67 percent. Since 2013, concern about North Korea has fallen substantially in South Korea, from 82 percent in 2013 to 67 percent in 2018.
As for climate change, the survey found that people across the globe were aware of the looming crisis, referencing last year’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, which expressed serious concerns about the possible impacts of climate change, both in the near and distant future.
“Broadly speaking, people around the world agree that climate change poses a severe risk to their countries,” it said.
The findings were conducted among 27,612 respondents in 26 countries from May 14 to Aug. 12, 2018.