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Will the US-Japan Alliance Survive?

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.

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.