US-Japan Relations in the 21st century

    The US-Japanese alliance is one of the longest lasting, and most tightly intertwined of the modern era, encompassing economic, political, social, and military links. Each nation is vital to the other’s strategic interests. For the United States, Japan is the most valuable ally in East Asia. For Japan, the United States offers an umbrella of protection against both North Korea and the rising power of China. It is important, though, to critically examine any relationship, so one may better understand it and contemplate the relationship’s future. Such contemplation is especially essential now, given current world instability. To be unaware of a relationship’s strength and vulnerabilities during such a time could prove disastrous. To understand the importance of the US-Japanese alliance, this work will be looking at the following: first, the waning power of the United States; second, how and why Japan is failing to live up to its potential and remedies for its shortcomings; third the current, unstable state of global affairs and how this could allow new powers to rise; fourth the importance of the US-Japanese alliance and possible methods of strengthening it.

    The United States remains, arguably, the strongest state in the world. It maintains huge economic and political power, exerts tremendous social and cultural influence, and spends more on its military than the next few nations combined. This preeminence though, is far from unchallenged, as the European Union has overtaken the United States in terms of economic clout, and both the EU and China are looking to expand their military capabilities. India’s power is waxing as well; the nation may soon surpass China in population, and is expanding its military budget, albeit not at a rate that matches their GDP. All of this indicates that the days of American supremacy may be ending. Now the United States faces the rise of a multi-polar world in which new allies and new rivals are sure to rise up in the near future. The United States must reexamine its position and relationships and devise a way to secure its global position. Japan will be a vital part of that strategy.

    The days of Japan as a future superpower are long past. But, with the nation’s “Ghost Decade” now past, Japan is recovering its influence. There are a few caveats to this statement though. For one, in spite of the efforts of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, inflation remains low, which has kept wages down. Exacerbating all policy concerns is Japan’s aging population. With fewer births and more of its population entering into advanced years, Japan will have an increasingly difficult time remaining an economic powerhouse. Should Japan lose its economic edge, the core of its soft power, the US-Japan alliance will weaken, as Japan’s ability to make economic deals that tie states to its interests and therein have the capacity to punish outlandish nations will diminish. This puts both Japanese interests, and American interests by proxy, at greater risk. Despite these concerns, the economy has grown for years and unemployment has reached less than three percent. If Prime Minister Abe is able to properly implement his “Abenomics” to its fullest potential, continued growth is likely.

On top of their economic concerns, Japan faces two other, interconnected issues: a pacifist constitution and a bellicose neighborhood. For decades Article 9, the section of the Japanese constitution that forbids Japan from maintaining a military and declaring war, has restrained Japan. The problem is even more troubling given recent events with North Korea, including the missiles that flew over Japan on August of 2017. On top of these concerns is the rising power of China, which has shown an increasing willingness to use aggression to forward its goals. All of this culminates in a Japan that, while still strong, needs reform, economically, politically, and militarily. Absent reforms any contributions it makes to an alliance with the United States will be minimal and thus, strain the relationship with the Western ally.

There is hope though. China’s economy seems to finally be slowing down and its birth rate is decreasing, despite relaxed restrictions on having children. Additionally, with Xi Jinping’s ending of term limits, the increasing restrictions on minority groups such as the Uighurs of Xinjiang province, the growing anger of migrant workers, and other similar problems, unrest is likely to grow. Predicting the nature and consequences of such dissent is impossible, given the size of the problems and the strength of the Chinese government, but it would wise for both the United States and Japan to keep these factors in mind when contemplating China and deciding on what actions to take with regards to the nation.

    The US-Japanese alliance is one of the great influences in East Asia, protecting the interests of both nations and ensuring stability in the region. With a combined GDP of  over $25 trillion, a combined defense budget of over $650 billion, and a combined population of nearly 500,000,000, the two nations act as a balance against the increasing power of China, and other ascendant states. The US-Japanese alliance remains as vital as ever and should be strengthened, with the two sides working to improve communication and understanding to better manage current and future crises. To do this Trump must stop alienating allies in Asia and elsewhere, and create a more united front. Failure to do this will result in any action he wishes to take, both globally and within the region, having less force behind it as allies show their unwillingness to back his measures. Trump should also take steps to strengthen the dollar. An active attempt to increase the value of the dollar could win him support in Japan by counteracting the nation’s inflation problem, in turn boosting the Japanese economy. The Japanese, in turn, should seek ways to increase their military strength, by abolishing Article 9 or circumventing it. Given the creation and maintenance of JSDF, which remains widely popular in Japan, this is not out of the question. These steps would bolster the alliance and the individual nations, while providing needed clarity of the roles of each state.

    There are reasons to be concerned about the US-Japanese alliance. Its role in balancing power in the region is critical, as are its mutual economic and cultural ties. If either state wishes to properly manage North Korea or China, they must work together. With serious, thoughtful effort, the two nations can repair the alliance. If they do so, both the United States and Japan will be better prepared to traverse the world to come.


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Combined GDP: (contains link to IMF report)

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