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Trust in Trump remains low but Japan still looks to U.S. for leadership amid China’s rise: Pew Research Center poll

By Jesse Johnson, staff writer


Ahead of the second anniversary of U.S. President Donald Trump’s election, Japanese trust in the American leader has suffered, but the overall image of the United States has not amid the rise of China, according to a new 25-nation survey.


However, the survey by the Pew Research Center released Tuesday also found that, despite the high esteem for the U.S., there are concerns in Japan about the trajectory of American power — Japan is the only country among those polled where a majority, 55 percent, believes the U.S. is less powerful than 10 years ago.


The poll showed that Trump’s international image remains poor, and ratings for the United States have tumbled to depths much lower than during Barack Obama’s presidency.


“In 2018, just 3-in-10 Japanese say they have confidence in Trump’s handling of world affairs, a slight improvement over their view in 2017, but significantly lower than their views of the U.S. president throughout the Obama administration,” according to the survey. “Opinion of Trump is comparable to sentiment about George W. Bush during his time in office. Fully 67 percent of Japanese, however, have a favorable view of the U.S., up 10 percentage points from last year.”


Across the globe, public responses are divided about the direction of American power. Among the 25 nations surveyed, a median of 31 percent said the U.S. plays a more important role in the world today than it did 10 years ago; 25 percent said it plays a less important role; and 35 percent believe the U.S. is as important as it was a decade ago.


In contrast, views about Chinese power are clear. A median of 70 percent said Beijing’s role on the world stage has grown over the past decade, the survey found.


Still, by a slim margin, more people name the U.S. as the world’s leading economic power — a median of 39 percent support this view, while 34 percent say China. Few named Japan or the European Union as the world’s leading economic power today.


The survey also found that even though America’s image has declined since Trump’s election, on balance the U.S. is still seen in a positive light — across the 25 nations polled, 50 percent have a favorable opinion of the U.S., while 43 percent offer an unfavorable rating. However, just 27 percent said they have confidence in Trump to do the right thing in world affairs, while 70 percent lack confidence in him.


Despite the unease many feel about the United States at the moment, the idea of a U.S.-led global order remains attractive to most. When asked which would be better for the world, having China or the U.S. as the top global power, people in nearly every country tended to select the United States.


Among the 25 countries, a median of 63 percent said they prefer a world in which the U.S. is the leading power, while just 19 percent would favor one in which China leads.


This was particularly common among some of China’s Asia-Pacific neighbors, including Japan, the Philippines, South Korea and Australia.


Among China’s immediate neighbors, preference for the U.S. was particularly high: 81 percent of Japanese, 77 percent of Filipinos and 73 percent of South Koreans all favor a future where Washington, not Beijing, leads.


In Australia — where 52 percent say China is the current leading economic power — nearly three-quarters still say they prefer a future where the U.S. is the world’s dominant power. Meanwhile, Argentina, Russia and Tunisia stand out as the only three countries where just one-third or fewer prefer U.S. leadership.


Sheila Smith, a senior fellow for Japan studies at Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, said that in Japan, the fear of a rising China played a key role in shaping views of U.S. power.


“My sense is when you sit in Tokyo, Beijing looms large,” Smith said. “This decline in feeling U.S. influence may reflect a rise in worry about Chinese influence. In other words, it is relative — others are increasingly influential, which means the U.S. is less.”


Still, said Smith, a second and perhaps related explanation “may simply be that the Trump administration has openly stated that the U.S. is pulling back from its global role, and Japanese take this new ‘Trump Doctrine’ at face value. We are less influential because we are deliberately advertising that we are disengaging.”


Both during his campaign for president and after his election, Trump has questioned the usefulness of multilateral organizations and trade deals. Most prominently, he pulled the United States out of the Trans-Pacific Trade Partnership in early 2017 as one of his first acts as president.


The Pew survey was based on telephone and face-to-face interviews with 26,112 respondents in 25 countries from May 20 to Aug. 12 and is generally based on national samples, with the margin of error for each country available on the nonprofit research organization’s website.

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