by Juliana Menasce Horowitz, Senior Researcher, Pew Global Attitudes Project

As President Barack Obama embarks on his first trip to Asia — which will include stops in Japan, China and South Korea — he will be greeted by publics who are confident in his judgment regarding world affairs and who generally agree with his international policies.

Like in much of the world, views of the United States have improved in Japan, China and South Korea over the past year, reflecting broad confidence in the new American president.

But improvements in U.S. image in the three countries on Obama’s itinerary have not been as pronounced as they have been in many of the countries surveyed by the Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project in May and June of this year.

Widespread Confidence in Obama

More than eight-in-ten in Japan (85%) and South Korea (81%) have at least some confidence in Obama to do the right thing in world affairs. A smaller but substantial majority in China (62%) also shares that view. By contrast, only a quarter of the Japanese and 30% of the South Koreans and the Chinese expressed at least some confidence in George W. Bush in the last year of his term.

Still, support for Obama is not nearly as strong in Japan, China and South Korea as it is in some other parts of the world. Just 29% of the Japanese, 13% of the Chinese and 9% of South Koreans express a lot of confidence in Obama. By comparison, majorities in Kenya (78%), Germany (56%) and Nigeria (55%), as well as nearly half in Canada (47%) and 43% in Britain, say the American president inspires a lot of confidence in them.

Modest Improvement in U.S. Image

Ratings for the U.S. in Japan, China and South Korea are more positive than they were in 2008, but the improvements in U.S. image in these three countries have been much less dramatic than in Indonesia, India, Nigeria and in the Western European and Latin American countries surveyed.

Nearly eight-in-ten South Koreans (78%) express a favorable view of the U.S., up eight percentage points from an already high rating in 2008. Only in Nigeria and Kenya are views of the U.S. more positive (79% and 90%, respectively).

In Japan, where opinions of the U.S. were nearly evenly split in 2008, most now offer a favorable view. About six-in-ten Japanese (59%) give the U.S. a positive rating and 37% give it a negative rating; in 2008, half offered a favorable view and 48% offered an unfavorable view of the U.S.

Views of the United States are more negative in China than in the two other countries included in Obama’s itinerary. About the same share say they have a favorable view of the U.S. (47%) as say they have an unfavorable view (46%). Still, Chinese ratings of the U.S. are more positive than they were last year, when 41% gave the U.S. a favorable rating.

Mixed Views of Obama’s Approach

Despite the widespread confidence in Obama’s judgment among the Japanese, Chinese and South Koreans, expectations for the way the president will approach foreign policymaking are more mixed. For example, slightly more people in Japan say Obama will not take their country’s interests into account than say he will (46% vs. 43%). In China and South Korea, pluralities say Obama will act multilaterally (46% and 49%, respectively), but a sizeable minority in each country does not think that is the case.

When it comes to decisions regarding when to use military force, close to two-thirds of South Koreans (65%) expect the U.S. president to seek international approval; a slim majority in Japan (52%) shares that view. Yet, in China, most have low expectations — 54% say Obama will not seek international approval before deploying forces and just 29% say he will.

Majorities in Japan (59%) and South Korea (70%) expect Obama to take significant measures to control global climate change, an issue that will be high on the agenda during Obama’s trip to Asia. Views are somewhat more mixed in China — nearly half (49%) expect the Obama administration to tackle climate change and about a third (34%) do not think he will do so.

Views of Obama’s International Policies

When asked for their overall assessments of Obama’s international policies, majorities in Japan (77%), South Korea (71%) and China (57%) approve. More specifically, there is widespread approval in these countries of Obama’s decision to close the U.S. military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and to withdraw combat forces from Iraq by 2011.

In contrast, Obama’s decision to send additional troops to Afghanistan is met with widespread resistance. In China, 71% disapprove while just 17% approve of the president’s decision. Similarly, in Japan, more than twice as many disapprove as approve of Obama’s decision to increase troop levels in Afghanistan (62% vs. 28%); 55% disapprove and 28% approve in South Korea.

U.S. Seen as Leading Economy by Japanese and South Koreans

Of the 25 publics surveyed, South Koreans are the most likely to name the United States as the world’s leading economic power — eight-in-ten say that is the case. By comparison, just 48% of Americans name their own country as the world’s leading economy. About one-in-ten South Koreans (12%) say China is the dominant economic power.

The U.S. is also seen as the world’s leading economic power by a majority in Japan. Nearly six-in-ten Japanese (58%) characterize the U.S. this way, compared with 21% who name China.

The Chinese are evenly divided — 41% say the U.S. is currently the dominant economic power and 41% name their own country. This is a significant shift from last year, when about half (48%) described the U.S. as the world’s leading economy and just 21% described China this way.