August 5, 2013

Asia’s view of China - mostly wary, but Japan most of all

By Bruce Stokes, Director of Global Economic Attitudes, Pew Research Center

Special to Nikkei Weekly (subscription required)

Prime Minister Abe’s call for high-level talks with China comes at a time when Japanese attitudes toward China have soured precipitously as tensions have grown due to disputes over trade, geopolitics and history.

But Japanese are not alone in recalibrating their view of China. South Koreans and Filipinos also now have a more jaundiced perspective on Beijing. Others in the Asia-Pacific region – including Malaysians and Australians – do not share the same negative attitude toward China. As a result, the region appears to be dividing into two camps in its views of their superpower neighbor.

Just one-in-twenty Japanese have a favorable attitude toward China, according to a survey by the Pew Research Center conducted in spring. A decade ago, in 2002, more than half (55%) of Japanese felt positively disposed toward the People’s Republic. And as recently as 2011 roughly a third (34%) still had a favorable view.

Japanese antipathy toward China is both deep and widely shared. Nearly half (48%) of Japanese surveyed have a very unfavorable view, a tripling of such extreme sentiment since 2011. These negative sentiments are shared by men and women, young and old, the highly educated and less educated and by people all along the income spectrum of Japan.

By comparison, nearly half the Filipinos (48%) and South Koreans (46%) surveyed have a favorable view of China. These are down from strong majorities that saw Beijing favorably in 2002. Nevertheless, the fall off in positive sentiment has been far less in those countries and their current antipathy is not nearly as strong as felt in Japan.

At the same time, eight-in-ten Malaysians (81%) and nearly six-in-ten Australians (58%) still hold a favorable view of China.

Japanese antipathy toward China reflects the fact that most Japanese (74%) see Chinese power and influence as a major threat to Japan. In the region, only South Koreans (76%) share a similar level of concern about China.

Japanese are very apprehensive about China’s military strength. Nearly all Japanese surveyed (96%) say Beijing’s growing military might is a bad thing for Japan. Again, only the South Koreans (91%) share such intense fears. To be sure, the Japanese public has never felt good about Beijing’s military intentions. Yet such worries have grown 16 percentage points since 2007.

The confrontation with China over the Senkaku islands has undoubtedly aggravated these fears. A strong majority of Japanese (82%) thinks that such territorial disputes with China are a big problem for Japan. But the Japanese are not alone: 90% of Filipinos, 77% of South Koreans and 62% of Indonesians also say that their territorial confrontations with China are a problem.

Moreover, public perception of events before and during World War II is a critical element in Japanese views of China and Chinese attitudes toward Japan. And they distinguish Japanese sentiment from that of other nationalities in the region.

Nearly half (48%) of Japanese believe that Japan has apologized sufficiently for its military actions during the 1930s and 1940s. Another 15% think no apology is necessary. In contrast, 78% of Chinese say Japan has not sufficiently atoned for wartime acts.

Views of this “history” issue are widely shared in Japan by men and women, college and non-college educated, young and old, rich and poor. While in China, it is young, better educated, high income men who want to see more apologies from Japan. These are the very people who are likely to be the next generation of Chinese leaders.

Despite all this, a majority of the Japanese do not describe China as an enemy. When asked, 47% say China is neither partner nor enemy, while 40% say it is an enemy and 11% say partner. However, even this relatively benign attitude is changing. As recently as 2010 only 20% saw Beijing as an enemy and 32% viewed China as a friend.

All of this animus has undermined the Japanese public’s assessment of China’s current status and future influence in the world. Just 20% of Japanese think China is the world-leading economic power today. In 2010, 50% of Japanese accorded China that leadership role. In this regard, Japanese sentiment is largely in line with that of publics in most other nations in the region. The Japanese surveyed also believe that China will never surpass the United States as the world’s leading superpower.

Japanese attitudes toward China are clearly souring amid growing tensions over China’s military and territorial ambitions. Such public sentiment poses new challenges for the Abe government as it struggles to deal with its Chinese neighbor.