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The Future of the Japan-U.S. Alliance

By Joseph S. Nye, Jr. | Project Syndicate | May 21, 2008

U.S. military jets in formation around Mt.
Fuji. Credit: DOD/USN/Jarod Hodge (PD).

Many analysts currently detect malaise in Japan about its alliance with the United States. Some of this relates to North Korea's nuclear weapons and a concern that the United States will not adequately represent Japan's interests (such as accounting for Japanese citizens abducted by North Korea years ago.) Other issues concern the basing of U.S. marines in Okinawa and sharing the costs of moving some to Guam. The list is long, but they might best be thought of as "housekeeping" issues: many a couple can quarrel over them without contemplating divorce.

There is a deeper level of concern, however, which relates to Japan's fear of being marginalized as the United States turns toward a rising China. For example, some Japanese complain that China receives far more attention than Japan in the American election campaign. Such anxiety is not surprising: U.S. and Japanese defense capabilities are not symmetrical, and that is bound to agitate the more dependent party.

Over the years, various suggestions have been made with a view to making the alliance more symmetrical, including that Japan become a "normal" country with a full panoply of military capabilities, even nuclear weapons. But such measures would raise more problems than they would solve. Even if Japan implemented them, they would still not equal the capacity of the United States or eliminate the asymmetry. It is worth noting that during the Cold War, America's European allies had similar anxieties about dependency and abandonment, despite their own military capabilities.

The real guarantee of American resolve to defend Japan is the presence of U.S. troops and bases, and cooperation on issues—such as ballistic missile defense—aimed at protecting both Americans and Japanese. Moreover, there are two good answers to the question of whether the United States would abandon Japan in favor of China: values and threat.

Japan and the United States, unlike China, are both democracies, and they share many values. In addition, both Japan and the United States face a common challenge from China's rise and have a strong interest in ensuring that it does not become a threat. The United States regards a triangular Japan-China-U.S. relationship as the basis of stability in East Asia, and wants good relations between all three of its legs. But the triangle is not equilateral, because the United States is allied with Japan, and China need not become a threat to either country if they maintain that alliance.

On the other hand, China's power should not be exaggerated. A recent poll indicates that one-third of Americans believe that China will "soon dominate the world," while 54 percent see its emergence as a "threat to world peace." To be sure, measured by official exchange rates, China is the world's fourth largest economy, and it is growing at 10 percent annually. But China's income per capita is only 4 percent that of the United States. If both countries' economies continue to grow at their current rates, China's could be larger than America's in 30 years, but U.S. per capita income will still be four times greater. Furthermore, China lags far behind in military power, and lacks America's "soft power" resources, such as Hollywood and world-class universities.

China's internal evolution also remains uncertain. It has lifted 400 million people out of poverty since 1990, but another 400 million live on less that $2 per day. Along with enormous inequality, China has a migrant labor force of 140 million, severe pollution, and rampant corruption. Nor has its political evolution matched its economic progress. While more Chinese are free today than ever before in Chinese history, China is far from free. The danger is that Party leaders, trying to counter the erosion of communism, will turn to nationalism to provide ideological glue, which could lead to an unstable foreign policy—including, for example, conflict over Taiwan.

Faced with such uncertainty, a wise policy combines realism with liberalism. By reinforcing their alliance, the United States and Japan can hedge against uncertainty while at the same time offering China integration into global institutions as a "responsible stakeholder." The greatest danger is that an escalating fear of enmity in the three countries becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. In that sense, the U.S.-Japan alliance rests on deeply rooted joint interests.

There is a new dimension to the alliance, however, and to the relationship with China. This year, China surpassed the United States as the world's largest emitter of greenhouse gases. China argues, correctly, that it is still behind the United States and Japan in per capita emissions, but this does not reduce the costs imposed on the world (including Japan and the United States). A cooperative program that helps China to burn its coal more cleanly is in the interests of all three countries.

In general, transnational threats such as climate change or pandemics can cause damage on a scale equivalent to military conflict. (In 1918, avian flu killed more people than died in World War I). Responding to such threats requires cooperation, soft power, and nonmilitary instruments, and this is an area in which Japan is a much more equal and important ally. If anything, the new and growing dimension of transnational threats, when added to traditional security concerns, makes the future of the Japan-U.S. alliance look more promising than ever.

© 2008 Project Syndicate. Republished with kind permission.

Read More: Democracy, Diplomacy, Economy, Education, Environment, Globalization, Governance, Health, Security, China, Japan, United States, Americas, Asia

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