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How China and Japan View South Korea

By Mark Tokola

Genron NPO, a Japanese non-profit organization, released the results of an opinion survey in October 2019 that focusses on Japanese and Chinese perspectives of one another, but which also includes some nuggets about how the two countries perceive South Korea.  The survey was conducted by the Public Opinion Research Center in Japan and by the Horizon Research Consultancy Group in China.  For Koreanists, the most striking finding is the souring of Japanese public opinion towards South Korea, which is unsurprising given the state of relations between the two countries, but which the Genron survey confirms and quantifies.  China’s opinions regarding the two Koreas have held steady from 2018 to 2019, but Japan has come to feel less affinity towards South Korea, considers it less important for Japan’s interests, and believes South Korea’s influence in the region will decline over the next ten years.

The topline for Genron of their survey was that the Chinese public is taking an increasingly favorable view of Japan, whereas Japan’s view of China became only slightly less negative over the same period.  The percentage of Chinese who view Japan unfavorably fell steeply from 93 percent to 53 percent from 2018 to 2019.  The percentage of Japanese who view China unfavorably decreased only slightly from 90 percent to 85 percent.  From the Japanese perspective, the biggest obstacle to better bilateral relations are territorial issues (the Senkaku Islands and Chinese intrusions into Japan’s air and maritime space) followed by China’s “different political system.”  For China, territorial issues also are the biggest issue, followed closely by “Japan’s lack of a proper apology and remorse over its history of invasion into China.”  The Chinese and Japanese publics agree that their bilateral relationship is “important,” but are pessimistic about its future.  49 percent of the Chinese public expect a military conflict between the two countries, 23 percent of Japanese expect such a conflict.

Both the Chinese and Japanese publics considered their relationships with the United States to be their most important — more important than their relationship with each other.  Regarding South Korea, around 20 percent  of the Chinese public in both 2018 and 2019 said that China’s relationship with South Korea was more important that its relationship with Japan.  Around 45 percent say that China’s relations with Japan and South Korea are equally important.  Over the same period, there was a sharp increase in the percentage of Japanese respondents who said that Japan’s relationship with China was more important than its relationship with South Korea, from 23 percent to 31 percent.  The percentage of Japanese who believe that Japan’s relationship with China and South Korea are equally important fell from 53 to 43.

Regarding areas for bilateral cooperation between China and Japan, the most important for Japan is dealing with the North Korea nuclear issue followed closely by cooperation on the environment.  The Chinese public thought the two countries should cooperate primarily on strengthening bilateral trade and investment, followed by North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.  Renewable energy was a close third.

The Genron survey asked about “affinity” with other countries separately from their importance. Japanese affinity towards South Korea dropped from 26 percent to 17 percent.  That compares to Japanese affinity towards the United States at 50 percent and towards China at 5 percent.  Chinese affinity towards the United States was 17 percent, and towards Japan 12 percent.  Those numbers held steady over the course of the year.  China does not feel much affinity for any foreign country.

There was a question in the Genron survey asking whether the influence of various countries will change over the next ten years in regarding to Asia.  Over 80 percent of the Chinese and Japanese see U.S. influence as either increasing or holding steady over the next decade.  71 percent of Chinese believe that South Korea’s influence will increase or hold steady, but only 39 percent of Japanese believe that.  They believe South Korea is the country most likely to decrease in influence in Asia over the next ten years.

China and Japan unsurprisingly perceived threats to their security coming from different directions.  The countries that Japan considers as posing a security threat were: North Korea (85 percent), China (58 percent), Russia (36 percent), South Korea (23 percent), and the United States (10 percent).  For China, the threats come from: Japan (75 percent), the United States (74 percent), India (17 percent), Vietnam (17 percent), Russia (16 percent), South Korea (12 percent), and North Korea (10 percent).  It would be interesting to see which countries South Korea finds most threatening, but that was outside the scope of the Genron survey.

Finally, another informative question from the survey in regard to South Korea asked the Chinese and Japanese which countries they believe should participate in a potential multilateral framework for security in Northeast Asia.  For China, the list was short.  The only countries that rated over 40 percent were China, the United States, Japan, and Russia.  South Korea trailed at 31 percent, and North Korea at 26 percent.  For the Japanese a high percentage of the public said that a regional security framework should include, in order: China, Japan, South Korea, the United States, Russia, North Korea, and India.  Indonesia, Mongolia, and Australia all rated over 25 percent.  There was a sharp disparity between the low level of support in China for including South Korea in a security framework (31 percent), and the very high level of support in Japan for including it (80 percent).  Japan may have low affinity for South Korea, but considers it important for its security.

What can be drawn from the data?  First, the disputes between the governments of Japan and South Korea seem to be having a corrosive effect on the Japanese public’s perceptions of South Korea, at least in the short term.  On the other hand, the Japanese public firmly believes that the biggest threat to their security comes from North Korea and believes, much more strongly than China, that South Korea should be part of a potential multilateral security framework.  This suggests that the government of Japan would find public support for an effort to improve relations with Seoul.  The survey results are a reminder that over time relations between South Korea and Japan have had their highs and lows (regrettably, more of the latter) but the two countries know they need each other.

Mark Tokola is the Vice President of the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are his own.

Image from RICO Lee’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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