The key strategic issue in East Asia is the rise of Chinese power. Some analysts believe that China will seek a form of hegemony in East Asia that will lead to conflict. Unlike Europe, East Asia never fully came to terms with the 1930s and Cold War divisions subsequently limited reconciliation.
US President Donald Trump has launched a trade war with China and negotiations with Japan that take aim at Japan’s trade surplus with the US. While the recent announcement of bilateral talks postpones Trump’s threat of auto tariffs against Japan, critics worry that Trump might push Japan closer to China, whose president, Xi Jinping (習近平), is to hold a summit with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe this month.
The balance of power between Japan and China has shifted markedly in recent decades. In 2010, China’s GDP surpassed Japan’s as measured in US dollars — although it remains far behind Japan in per capita terms. It is difficult to remember that a little over two decades ago, many Americans feared being overtaken by Japan, not China. Books predicted a Japanese-led Pacific bloc that would exclude the US and even an eventual war with Japan. Instead, during then-US president Bill Clinton’s administration, the US reaffirmed its security alliance with Japan at the same time that it accepted the rise of China and supported its admission to the WTO.
In the early 1990s, many observers believed that the US-Japan alliance would be discarded as a Cold War relic. Trade tensions were high. Then-US senator Paul Tsongas campaigned for president in 1992 using the slogan: “The Cold War is over and Japan has won.”
The Clinton administration began with Japan-bashing, but after a two-year process of negotiation, Clinton and then-Japanese prime minister Ryutaro Hashimoto in 1996 issued a declaration that proclaimed the alliance to be the bedrock of stability for post-Cold War East Asia.
However, there was a deeper level of malaise and although it was rarely expressed openly, it related to the Japanese concern that it would be marginalized as the US turned toward China.
When I was involved in negotiating the reaffirmation of the alliance in the mid-1990s, my Japanese counterparts, seated across a table festooned with national flags, rarely discussed China formally, but later, over drinks, they would ask whether the US would shift its focus from Japan to China as the latter grew in strength.
Such anxieties are not surprising: When two allies’ defense capacities are not symmetrical, the more dependent party is bound to worry more about the partnership. Over the years, some Japanese have argued that Japan should become a “normal” country with a fuller panoply of military capabilities. Some experts have even suggested that Japan drop some of its anti-nuclear principles and develop nuclear weapons. However, such measures would raise more problems than they would solve. Even if Japan took steps to become a “normal” country — whatever that term might imply — it would still not equal the power of the US or China.
Today, Japan has a new set of concerns about abandonment by the US. Trump’s “America First” orientation and protectionist policies pose a new risk to the alliance. Trump’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership was a blow to Japan. While Abe has skillfully played to Trump’s ego to deflect conflict, acute differences remain. The Trump administration’s imposition of steel and aluminum tariffs on national security grounds surprised Abe and has fueled disquiet in Japan.