Earlier this week, the Pew Research Center released its new global attitudes survey for spring 2015.
At first glance, the Asia component of the survey seems to suggest that though a majority of nations in the Asia-Pacific back the U.S. ‘pivot’ (or, if you prefer, rebalance) to the region, Americans are relatively less supportive of the initiative. But the devil often lies in the details with such results, and a closer look raises doubts about this interpretation.
According to the results, in six of the eight Asia-Pacific countries surveyed – Australia, India, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, the Philippines, South Korea and Vietnam – half of or more of their publics think increased U.S. military resources in the region are a good thing. The two that did not were Indonesia and Malaysia, with the latter being the only country where a majority (54 percent) actually thought an increased U.S. military presence was a bad thing (Pakistan also did not).
This regional variation is far from surprising. Some countries within the group are staunch U.S. allies or emerging partners that see American military power as not only a stabilizing force, but as a defense against threats from other powers. Others tend to view American military power with suspicion, particularly when employed unilaterally. Indonesia and Malaysia, the two Muslim-majority states in Southeast Asia, have especially displayed a deep aversion to the use of U.S. military power in the Middle East in the “war on terror” – particularly in Iraq – as well as a strong general tendency to seek greater balance in their relationships with major powers.
Interestingly, in response to the same question, only 47 percent of Americans thought that committing their own military resources to the region was a good idea, which was below the median of 51 percent.
A similar trend was seen with respect to the economic side of the pivot. For views on this, the survey focused on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a U.S.-led regional regulatory and investment agreement whose 12 members represent nearly 40 percent of global GDP (See: “Finishing the TPP: It’s Not Just About the US Congress“).
According to the survey, in six of the seven nations surveyed that were part of TPP – Vietnam, Peru, Chile, Japan, Australia, Canada, and Malaysia –a majority of publics thought that TPP would be a good thing for their country. These included three of the four Asian countries among them – with the only exception again being Malaysia, where only 38 percent thought it was a good thing.
Here too, only 49 percent of Americans believed that it was a good thing, which was below the recorded median of 53 percent.
Taken together, these results seem to point to strong backing abroad in a majority of Asian nations for the U.S. pivot but relatively less support among Americans at home. A few caveats, however, are in order.
First, though there is somewhat of a divergence between Asians and Americans on those two specific questions, it is important not to overstate what is a relatively small difference. In both questions on the military and economic dimensions of the pivot, Americans were just four percent below the median range and one and three percent respectively from the majority threshold. This minor variation may be attributed to a range of factors apart from a perception gap, including the specific mix of Asian countries selected in this survey.
Second, the two questions themselves seem either overly narrow or vague to judge American perceptions of the pivot. On the economic dimension, while the focus on the TPP is understandable as it is a major initiative, the result is that the survey gets American sentiments about just that one agreement which are quite specific and affected by a polarized domestic debate. Those who follow the pivot closely also know that there is more to its economic aspect than just the TPP.
On the military side, the question is phrased as “Are increased U.S. military resources in Asia a good/bad thing?” Anyone who has engaged in surveys and polls before knows phrasing is important, and in this case there are two potential problems that might bias the results. The first is the specific use of the word “resources” – a trigger word for those anxious about increased U.S. commitments anywhere. The second is the phrasing of the question as a general one about “U.S. military resources” being “increased” rather than also specifying what they are being used for and under what circumstances. In contrast, the Pew question on U.S. attitudes regarding the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) was not phrased as whether “resources ought to be increased,” but more specifically about whether Americans supported U.S. military actions against ISIS. This is not just minor quibbling – as I mention in the third point below, in the same survey Americans also strongly supported the more specific idea of coming to the defense of Asian allies.
Third, concluding that American support for the U.S. pivot and Asia policy more generally is lacking from just two survey questions is a bit misleading. For instance, in the survey, Americans also showed a strong willingness to come to the defense of Asian allies – a clear a sign of support for alliances which are a key aspect of the pivot. According to the survey, 56 percent of Americans believe that if one of the U.S. allies in Asia get into a serious military conflict with China, the United States should use military force to defend them. Interestingly, when asked the same question, a far higher average of around 66 percent of publics among the three U.S. allies featured in the study – Japan, the Philippines and South Korea – believe that Washington would defend them if they get into a major confrontation with Beijing.
Fourth and lastly, it is important to remember that this is just one iteration of one survey. A survey by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs last year found that 60 percent of Americans supported the U.S. pivot to Asia. More specifically, Pew’s own public opinion poll on Americans’ views on TPP last year found that a majority of Americans (55 percent) supported the TPP.
All this suggests that there may not be much to the idea gleaned from the survey that Americans appear less supportive of the U.S. pivot to Asia than Asians are. The small divergence that exists might be attributable more to Americans reacting to either specific things (like the TPP) or overly general questions (such as military resources), rather than a broader skepticism about U.S. Asia policy.