Perspectives from Around the World

U.S.-Japan Alliance: Present and Future

Joseph S. NYE Jr.
Sultan of Oman Professor of International Relations, Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University

The U.S.-Japan Security Treaty has been a central feature of stability in East Asia for half a century, but the political realignment and policy changes that followed the Japanese election of 2009 caused uncertainty about the alliance. Some even asked: could this be the beginning of the end? I think not. If one compares the situation today with 20 years ago, the alliance is stronger rather than weaker.

In the early 1990s, many Americans regarded Japan as an economic threat, and many Japanese were considering a United Nations rather than a U.S. centered approach to their national security. Some people in both countries saw the security alliance as a Cold War relic to be discarded. These trends were reversed by the Clinton administration's 1995 East Asia Strategy Report which invited China's participation in international affairs, but hedged against uncertainty by reinforcing our alliance with Japan.

In 1996, the Clinton-Hashimoto Declaration stated that the U.S.-Japan security alliance was the foundation for stability that would allow growing prosperity in a post-Cold War East Asia. As I said when I was then serving in the Pentagon, we wished to see a stable triangle with good relations in all three sides between the U.S., China, and Japan, but the triangle would not be equilateral because our relationship with Japan rested on alliance. That approach has continued on a bipartisan basis in the U.S., and despite recent political maneuvering, polls show that it still has a broad acceptance in Japan. That is why I say the U.S.-Japan alliance is in much better shape today than it was 15 years ago.

Nonetheless, the alliance faces three major changes in a new external environment that will produce challenges over the next few years. One is the danger of an unpredictable North Korea that is going through a period of leadership transition. It has withdrawn from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and from the Six Party Talks, and has recently sunk a South Korean naval ship. Second, is Chinese economic growth at over 10 per cent per annum and even more rapid growth in military expenditures over the past decade. Third, is the rise of a new range of transnational threats to vital national interests such as climate change.

The dramatic rise of the Chinese economy has provided an important trade partner for Japan, but the concurrent growth of Chinese power makes Japanese nervous. When we were re-negotiating the U.S.-Japan security alliance in the 1990s, Japanese leaders would sometimes privately ask me if the U.S. would desert Japan in favor of China. I responded then (and today) that there is little prospect of such a reversal of alliances for two reasons. First, China poses a potential threat while Japan does not. Second, we share democratic values with Japan and China is not a democracy.

Moreover, China's internal evolution remains uncertain. Political evolution has failed to match economic progress and China is far from free. Unlike India, China has not solved the problem of political participation. There is always a residual danger that China will slip into competitive nationalism in the face of domestic problems. At the same time, it is in the interest of the U.S., Japan, and China that China's rise be peaceful and harmonious (in the words of their leaders). If, by some mishap, China does turn aggressive, it will find that Asia contains others such as India and Australia as well as Japan that would contain its power. But it would be a mistake to turn to containment under current circumstances. Integration plus a hedge against uncertainty is a better approach. Indeed, there are strong grounds for the U.S., Japan, and China to engage in areas of trilateral and other regional cooperation.

Third, the U.S.-Japan alliance will have to face the challenge of a new set of transnational challenges to our vital interests such as health pandemics, terrorism, and outflows from failed states. Chief among these challenges is the damage that can be wreaked by global warming where China has now surpassed the United States as the leader overall (but not per capita) producer of carbon dioxide. Fortunately, this is an area that plays to Japan's strengths.

Some Japanese complain about the unequal nature of our alliance in the traditional security field because of history and the limits that Japan has put on its use of force, but in these new areas, Japan is a more equal partner. Japanese overseas development assistance in places ranging from Africa to Afghanistan, Japanese participation in global health projects, Japanese support of the United Nations, Japanese naval participation in anti-piracy operations, and Japanese research and development on more efficient uses of energy are all at the forefront in dealing with the new transnational challenges.

It is important for the U.S. and Japan to reaffirm our alliance on this 50th anniversary. Even though domestic political realignment in Japan has caused a period of minor friction in the traditional security agenda, our common interest remains overwhelming and the alliance is likely to prosper unless we handle things very poorly. This will require greater patience and even closer consultation between Washington and Tokyo than in the past, but I am optimistic about the future of the U.S.-Japan alliance.

Joseph S. Nye is a professor at Harvard and author of the forthcoming book The Future of Power in the 21st Century.

June 2010

June 1, 2010

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