Will the U.S.-Japan Alliance Survive?

By Joseph Nye

CAMBRIDGE - Next year marks the 50th anniversary of the United States-Japan Security Treaty, a central feature of stability in East Asia for half a century. But now, with the Japanese experiencing a period of domestic political uncertainty, and North Korea's nuclear tests and missile launches increasing their anxiety, will Japan reverse its long-standing decision not to seek a national nuclear-deterrent capability? Is the US-Japan alliance coming to an end?

In the early 1990's, many Americans regarded Japan as an economic threat. Some people - in both countries - viewed the security alliance as a Cold War relic to be discarded.

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These trends were reversed by the Clinton administration's 1995 "East Asia Strategy Report." In 1996, the Clinton-Hashimoto Declaration stated that the US-Japan security alliance was the foundation for stability that would allow growing prosperity in post-Cold War East Asia. That approach has continued on a bipartisan basis in the US, and polls show that it retains broad acceptance in Japan. Most close observers of the relationship agree that the US-Japan alliance is in much better shape today than 15 years ago.

Nonetheless, the alliance faces three major challenges in a new external environment. One is North Korea, whose recent behavior has been clever and deceptive. The North Koreans have violated their agreements, knowing that China, the country with the greatest potential leverage, is most concerned about regime collapse in North Korea, and thus the threat of chaos on its borders.

Japan officially endorses the objective of a non-nuclear world, but it relies on America's extended nuclear deterrent, and wants to avoid being subject to nuclear blackmail from North Korea (or China). The Japanese fear that the credibility of American extended deterrence will be weakened if the US decreases its nuclear forces to parity with China.

It is a mistake, however, to believe that extended deterrence depends on parity in numbers of nuclear weapons. Rather, it depends on a combination of capability and credibility. During the Cold War, the US was able to defend Berlin because our promise to do so was made credible by the NATO alliance and the presence of American troops, whose lives would be on the line in the event of a Soviet attack.

Indeed, the best guarantee of American extended deterrence over Japan remains the presence of nearly 50,000 American troops (which Japan helps to maintain with generous host-nation support). Credibility is also enhanced by joint projects such as the development of regional ballistic missile defense.

Equally important are American actions that show the high priority that the US gives to the alliance, and its guarantees not to engage in what Japan fears will be "Japan-passing" in its relations with Asia. That is why it was so important that US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's first trip was to Asia, and her first stop in Japan. It is also why it is mistaken to speak of a formal G-2 with China, rather than multilateral cooperation.

A second challenge for Japan is the dramatic rise of China's economy. Although an important trade partner, China's growing power makes Japan nervous. When re-negotiating the US-Japan security alliance in the 1990's, Japanese leaders sometimes privately asked me if the US would desert Japan in favor of China.

I responded then (and today) that there is little prospect of such a reversal, for two reasons. First, China poses a potential threat, whereas Japan does not. Second, the US shares democratic values with Japan, and China is not a democracy.

Moreover, China's internal evolution remains uncertain. While Chinese are more free today than at any time in their history, China's political evolution has lagged behind its economic progress. Unlike India, China has not solved the problem of political participation. There is always a residual danger that China will embrace nationalism to ward off domestic problems.

At the same time, it is in the interest of the US, Japan, and China that China's rise be peaceful and harmonious (in the words of Chinese leaders). Treat China as an enemy, and you guarantee enmity. That is why the strategy of integration, plus a hedge against uncertainty, makes sense for both the US and Japan. Indeed, there are strong grounds for the US, Japan, and China to engage in areas of trilateral and other regional cooperation.

Third, the US-Japan alliance will have to face a new set of transnational challenges to our vital interests, such as pandemics, terrorism, and human outflows from failed states. Chief among these challenges is the threat posed by global warming, with China having surpassed the US as the leading producer of carbon-dioxide emissions (though not in per capita terms).

Fortunately, this is an area that plays to Japan's strengths. Although some Japanese complain about the unequal nature of the alliance's security components, owing to the limits that Japan has accepted on the use of force, in these new areas, Japan is a stronger partner. Japan's overseas development assistance in places ranging from Africa to Afghanistan, its participation in global health projects, its support of the United Nations, its naval participation in anti-piracy operations, and its research and development on energy efficiency place it at the forefront in dealing with the new transnational challenges.

Given today's agenda, there is enormous potential for an equal partnership, working with others, in the provision of global public goods that will benefit the US, Japan, and the rest of the world. That is why I remain optimistic about the future of the US-Japan alliance.

Joseph S. Nye, Jr. is a professor at Harvard and author of The Powers to Lead.

© Project Syndicate 2009

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