Doubt grows over Abe's foreign policy: Survey

TOKYO • There is growing doubt in Japan over Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's foreign policy, a poll has found.

The survey by the United States-based Pew Research Centre, which polled 1,016 Japanese citizens between May 24 and June 19, found that nearly one in two lacked confidence in Mr Abe to "do the right thing in world affairs".

Support for Mr Abe's foreign policy fell from a peak of 62 per cent in 2015 to 48 per cent - the lowest since 2007, when Pew first asked this question about Mr Abe, who was prime minister for the first time from 2006 to 2007.

The findings were released yesterday as Mr Abe hosted a visit by US Vice-President Mike Pence in Tokyo, before the two leaders attend high-level regional meetings in Singapore and Papua New Guinea.

Since becoming prime minister for the second time in 2012, Mr Abe has been actively seeking to build friendships with like-minded countries and regions.

He tried to build personal rapport with not only US President Donald Trump, but also Russian President Vladimir Putin, in the hopes of achieving a breakthrough in the territorial spat over the Northern Territories/ Southern Kuril islands.

However, the fall in support for his foreign policy underlined how these efforts had not borne fruit.

The Pew survey also found that Japan was viewed favourably generally in the Asia-Pacific countries surveyed as well as in the US. The people of several countries also expressed a high level of confidence in Mr Abe's foreign policy, including the Philippines (72 per cent), Australia (68 per cent) and the US (57 per cent).

But this was not the case in South Korea, where feelings of acrimony still run high over Japan's wartime atrocities, and only 10 per cent of respondents were confident over Mr Abe's foreign policy.

Meanwhile, Japanese sentiments towards the US and China improved slightly from last year, though there was still overwhelming belief (71 per cent) the US was acting unilaterally, without taking into account the concerns of Japan, its long-time security ally.

The threat of a full-blown trade war between the US and China had nudged Asia's two largest economies together, and the ratio of Japanese with a positive view of China increased to 17 per cent - from a low of 5 per cent in 2013.

Eight in 10 Japanese believed China plays a more important role in the world today than 10 years ago - though two in three saw this power and influence as a major threat.

The survey was also an admonition against Japanese democracy. The Japanese believed elections do not change anything (62 per cent), that elected officials do not care what ordinary people think (62 per cent) and that most politicians are corrupt (53 per cent).

Only four in 10 were satisfied that democracy was working in the country - down from 50 per cent last year.

A snap general election in October last year splintered the former main opposition Democratic Party into different parties, while Mr Abe had also been plagued by allegations of cronyism.

The Pew survey also found that many Japanese saw the economy as improving under Mr Abe's watch, though most Japanese saw a bleak future as they were fearful that robots would steal their jobs.

More than eight in 10 believed automation would lead to worse income inequality, while nearly three-quarters thought ordinary people would have a hard time finding jobs.

Japan's population of 126.7 million is expected to shrink by a third by 2065, and it is looking to automation to boost productivity, and to foreign workers to fill jobs in sectors such as nursing and construction.

The Liberal Democratic Party sought to loosen immigration restrictions in a Bill tabled in Parliament this month.

The Pew survey - along with several Japanese media opinion polls - showed that citizens were split on whether to allow more foreigners into the country.

Walter Sim

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 14, 2018, with the headline 'Doubt grows over Abe's foreign policy: Survey'. Print Edition | Subscribe