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The Future of the Japan-US Alliance

Cambridge – 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 US 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 US 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 US 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: US 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 US 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 US 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 US would abandon Japan in favor of China: values and threat.