The End of the Silver Lining: A Chinese View of the U.S.-Japanese Alliance

Wu Xinbo
Wu Xinbo Professor and Executive Director, Center for American Studies - Fudan University

December 1, 2006

Enhanced security ties between Washington and Tokyo since the mid-1990s, particularly during the past few years, have transformed the U.S.-Japanese alliance and reshaped the East Asian security environment. Although external threats to Japan today are at a historic low, the transformation has created room for Tokyo to pursue a more active and aggressive security policy. From dispatching troops to Iraq to listing Taiwan as one of the “common strategic objectives” between the United States and Japan in the Asia-Pacific region, Japan has shown increased assertiveness and willingness to work militarily with the United States. Impressed by Japan’s enthusiasm and dynamism in promoting security cooperation, U.S. deputy secretary of state Richard Armitage, an enthusiastic proponent of strong U.S.-Japanese security ties, remarked satisfactorily on the achievements in the U.S.-Japanese alliance at the end of the first Bush administration: “[I]f you look back to where we were in 2000 and where we are now, oh, so many things have changed. So many things.”1 Yet, as the United States and Japan have expanded their security ties to reflect changes in their respective threat perceptions and regional security strategies, strong concern has arisen in other countries.

This is particularly true in Beijing, which believes that enhanced security cooperation between Washington and Tokyo compromises China’s security interests. For years, many Chinese analysts regarded the U.S.-Japanese alliance as a useful constraint on Japan’s remilitarization. Developments since the mid-1990s and especially during the past few years, however, have convinced them that the alliance has become an excuse for Japan to pursue a more active security policy. Moreover, the “China factor” has played an even stronger role in U.S.-Japanese security cooperation under the Bush administration than in previous years. Concern with checking rising Chinese power and deterring a possible Chinese use of force in the Taiwan Strait has caused Washington to push for more assertive Japanese security policy, shaping both the form and substance of U.S.-Japanese security cooperation. Indeed, as Beijing continues to expand its material power and influence in Asia, Washington has sought to balance China’s rise through its campaign to return Japan to a “normal nation.” Contrary to past policies, the United States is now driving rather than constraining Japan’s rearmament. In the foreseeable future, short of a major adjustment of U.S. regional security strategy, the U.S.-Japanese alliance will act as a propellant of, rather than as a cap on, Japan’s military development. At least as far as China is concerned, the bright side of the U.S.-Japanese alliance seems to be gone.