US-Japan alliance and rising China


One of the major developments in recent years in the US-Japan security cooperation was related to the growth and behavior of Japan’s neighbor. Which is one of the reasons, that bring the mutual US-Japan military alliance back on track – the belligerence from China directed at both allies. Even in the last decade Japan had more and more reasons to feel uneasy about two simultaneous trends – rising Chinese assertiveness and Washington’s pro-Beijing policy. The latter one seems to have been averted only very recently.

Already a decade ago the worsening condition of the Sino-US relationship was stated. In July 2002 the U.S.-China Security Review Commission released a report, which says, that „The two countries have sharply contrasting worldviews, competing geostrategic interests, and opposing political systems.”[1] In terms of Japan this was evident even 6 years earlier.[2] Inking of the “Japan-US joint declaration on security: Alliance for the 21st century” caused comments from the PRC Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman. One of reasons was that the Chinese authorities interpreted the text as directed at China and referring to peaceful solution of the Taiwan issue. This should not come as a surprise, since the joint communiqué was issued one month after the most intense phase of the 1995-96 Taiwan Strait crisis. “Implicit references to China in the Declaration have become the focus of apprehensive Chinese commentary and debate. Chinese analysts noted that the Declaration cited sources of persisting instability and uncertainty in the Asia-Pacific region that by implication involve China, including unresolved territorial disputes, potential regional conflicts, heavy concentrations of conventional and nuclear forces, and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and their means of delivery.”[3]

Another step seen by China as directed against it was the earlier loosening of restrictions (in the 2nd half of the 90s) regarding US-Japan wartime cooperation under the Security Treaty. Which hints a possible Japanese cooperation should America be involved militarily in the region (read – with China). For example in the case of Taiwan. Chinese experts see Japanese participation in peacekeeping operations as a veiled way to expand the reach of its power projection capabilities.[4]

There are few reasons for the worsening cooperation. Unlike with China, the US almost does not have with Japan contradicting security interests. Both countries can look back on few decades of fruitful military collaboration. We could call it the antithesis of the Sino-US relationship.

Only few weeks ago Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura announced a decision to ease the country’s decades-long weapons export ban in a bid to lower purchase and production costs. Another reason was to take part in arms-development projects with other countries.[5] Japan and the US have already jointly conducted weapons research and development to step up their security alliance. Earlier this month Japan announced a costly deal by ordering 42 F-35 fighter jets from Lockheed Martin. After the Asian crisis in the end of the nineties, successive Japanese governments reduced the defense budget of the The Japanese Self-Defense Force.
Also last year Japanese authorities started relocating its forces from the North to the South – to the Yonakuni island, next to the strategic Miyako channel. This change is related to China’s disputes over the Senkaku islands, called by the Chinese Daioyutai. Those troops were stationed to protect the country from the Soviets / Russians, however, with changing priorities they are being redeployed.[6]

As a response to the recent Korean crisis in Yeonpyeong, Japan and US began in December 2010 their first exercise ever codenamed Keen Sword. It was held in southern Japanese waters. This was partly a sign of Japan’s concern about ongoing maritime disputes. The PLA Navy is looking for ways to break out of the first island chain in order to operate freely in the Western Pacific. Of special concern are the Ruyku islands. This archipelago is of major attention for all three related parties – the US, Japan and Taiwan. Bypassing them would give the Chinese Navy an immense advantage over the US, Japan and neighbors. A prime candidate is Miyako Island, adjacent to the Ishigaki strait, the passage of choice for PLAN flotillas in recent years judging by their deployment patterns.[7] Earlier in April the PLAN dispatched submarines and destroyers to the Miyako strait south of Okinawa. To make things worse, a Chinese naval helicopter flew very close to a Japanese destroyer. These are only some of accidents which seem to form a pattern of Chinese naval activity (not only towards Japan, also Vietnam and Philippines).

Another reason for Japanese worries about China’s rise is not only its military’s and fishermen intrusions. It is for example diplomacy with Chinese characteristics[8] – namely the handling of a crisis. The reaction to the boat accident in September 2010 and its captain’s detention by the Japanese Coast Guard in the waters near the Senkaku islands. Chinese government’s reaction was disproportionate.[9] It could be, that this harsh reaction was also aimed at the region, territorial disputants for example, to prepare them for China’s might. However, it does not serve the country well, reinforcing the image of a belligerent policy. An additional worrisome element was the reaction of the nationalistic Chinese population. Such events draw Japan only closer to its alliance with America.
CCP’s government-lead nationalist favor against the US, Japan[10] or France[11] are another reason for rising tensions.
There is also causes for the Chinese side to be worried about the nationalistic attitude of its neighbor (textbook controversy, Yasukuni shrine visits, article IX of the Constitution).[12] Those cause a wide discussion among the netizens and give the government opportunities to criticize Japanese authorities and society. This way Japan can be portrayed as part of a Western, most of all American, plot to hinder China’s rise.


Another point of discontent among the States, Japan and China is Taiwan. Japan it is the only country, for which the island has basic strategic meaning.

Economic vs. social interaction

Taiwan’s and Japan’s situations in respect to China are similar – both enjoy growing trade with China and rising security concerns. Both also heavily rely on American support in this matter. Both countries’ political systems, goals and alliances are more in line with the States than with China. And yet, it is China that attracts the biggest portion of American attention in the region, which is called the most important relationship that the US has. To make things less clear, Chinese civilian and military authorities, the state-controlled media, parts of the society make no secret of their strong anti-American sentiment. One of the possible reasons for this imbalance could be the luring size of the Chinese market (and involvement of US officials in consultations and businesses there). Which seems hard to understand, when one considers the restrictions imposed on foreign businesses to compete in the Chinese market, participate in governmental bids. Even China’s entry into the WTO did not change as much as expected.

In regard to China we can note in this matter  – economic interdependence will not guarantee peace and stability. Example being Sino–Japanese relations that are improving economically but deteriorating strategically. Interestingly, improvement of economic ties with China has done little to disturb Japan’s more fostering of economic, social, and political relations with Taiwan. Despite CCP’s warnings and anger, Tokyo has become increasingly assertive on Taiwan, clearly indicating that Japan, like the United States, might be a stakeholder in this potentially explosive issue. Japan’s booming economic ties with China have not intimidated Japan into silence over Taiwan. “Taiwan has become the only soothing voice in Japan’s regional environment, which includes an increasingly nationalistic China, perennially suspicious South Korea, and reckless North Korea.”[13]

Military interaction

One might even add another feature, that distinguishes those 3 democracies from their authoritarian adversary, which is very important regarding maritime cooperation. “The PLA is an unusual military for a modern state. It is supported by public finance, but recognizes itself as the military arm of the Communist Party of China (CPC).”[14]

China has been in the more than a decade-long process of adjusting its military spending and regional influence to its rising economic clout. It could therefore happen, that „the uneasy asymmetry between Japan’s economic and military power will be broken sooner or later since historically no major economic power has remained such without transforming itself into a major military power” [15]

Which would be in line with some American experts’ arguments Japan enjoys a free-ride on US security commitment and should contribute more to its own defense needs.[16] As a result of US pressure, the Japanese Diet loosened in the 2nd half of the 90s the country’s restrictions and allowed the military to become more active in its neighborhood. But apart from the US, Japan has been involved in military cooperation with Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore in areas like seabed mapping, navigation safety through sharing of equipment and training. Its economy depends heavily on the passage of resources through the Strait of Malacca.

As one author rightly notes in regard to the very alliance – “In addition to the dispute among claimant states in Southeast Asia, two nations— the U.S. and Japan—have specific interests in the South China Sea that necessitate involvement by both parties. Indeed, events in the region could have dramatic security implications for Washington, Tokyo, and the 50-year-old bilateral security alliance.”[17]

The presence of US military on Japanese soil not only assures Japan in regard to China and North Korea, but also calms down China (and South Korea). Should the US Army leave, Japan might embark on an indigenous armament program and expand it power-projection possibilities, which might make its neighbors uneasy. So all in all it seems to have a soothing effect, even neighbors might not admit it publicly. Japanese remilitarization would not make the country very popular in the region.

However, there is another interesting angle to it “(…) the Chinese may look for other indicators to evaluate whether the alliance is moving in an unfavorable direction, including U.S-Japan joint military planning and cooperation to deter or respond to the use of force by China, possibly against Taiwan, or in a contingency involving the Spratlys or the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands.”[18] So the military cooperation between both allies can make China feel easier, but also be a reason for concern.

It was in February 2005 that Japan took a more decisive stand on Taiwan encouraging “the peaceful resolution of issues concerning the Taiwan Strait through dialogue.”[19] This way it declared a security-related position on the Taiwan question. It also implied that there could be circumstances in which China would be an adversary.


We can tell that since the 90s the US continues to encourage Japan’s remilitarization with increasing effect as Japan’s identity as a strategic actor grows more active and receptive to U.S. pressure.

Considering the trends of the last decade one should assume, that good fences make good neighbors. Which in this context should translate into strengthened US-Japan cooperation, more vocal commitment to each other and to Taiwan, arm research cooperation and joint exercises, possibly with Korea and India. Should the US Army decrease its presence and commitment in the Pacific, Japan would be forced to rely more on itself. Possible scenarios could include closer collaboration with India, Korea, some other neighbors.

There is no lack of clarity how the CCP and PLA view the South China Sea and Taiwan. However, depending on how the US would approach those issues, Japan might commit more or less resources to its military. This will then effect China’s behavior.

In my opinion, apart from territorial claims, China’s belligerence and threats towards Taiwan contribute to Japanese concerns regarding its neighbor. This causes changes in Japan’s and American policies and cooperation, which then makes Chinese authorities suspicious regarding their regional policy. When one adds ongoing competition for regional influence between both neighbors, it does not bode well for the future. No matter what official statements say.

All in all it seems American engagement in the Pacific through its alliance with Japan helps the region to stay stable, develop economies, keep sea-lanes safe and cool its allies’ emotions. Not necessarily CCP’s / PLA’s since they see the US as an intruder in their backyard. US engagement is definitely not a source of nationalism in Asia as a region.

As a sign of good will and realism towards China, America could stay away from stressing free speech, democracy and human rights. Those run counter to the very survival of the CCP and as the record shows, criticizing does not help, might even make things worse. The CCP won’t give in on it. This is up to the Chinese people themselves. There are other, more important issues to discuss – like trade, regional institutions, the South China Sea and Taiwan. They concern the whole region and have broader implications, than just China.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice summed the development of the Japan-US relationship in a accurate way “a relationship that was once only about the defense of Japan or perhaps about the stability in the region, has truly become a global alliance.”[20]

Richard Zalski

PhD candidate at the Tamkang University in Taipei

[1] U.S.-China Security Review Commission July 5th 2002,

_ID=548, accessed January 8th 2012.

[2], Japan-US joint declaration on security Alliance for the 21st century, 17th April 1996, accessed January 8th 2012.

[3] Banning Garnett and Bonnie Glaser, Chinese apprehensions about revitalization of the US-Japan alliance, Asian Survey, vol. 37, no. 4, April 1997,  p. 388.

[4] ibid,  p. 396.

[6] In earlier decades the U.S.-Japan security relationship has rested on the shared sense of the threat posed by Soviet military to Japanese territory. For years both felt concern about potential Soviet strikes against Japanese military targets.

[7] Map showing movement of the Chinese Navy

40187&type=full &servicetype=Inline&customSizeId=0.

More on those incidents: South China Morning Post, Get used  to PLA naye, says general, May 6 2010

[8] Leadership with Chinese characteristics, Richard Zalski,

content &task=view&id=3700&Itemid=171

[9] China’s suspension of a range of high-level government talks with Japan, including talks over the expansion of air linkages, also threat of a severe escalation in retaliation for the captain’s detention. In addition, China has suspended a substantial youth exchange initiative.

[10] More on the outstanding issues between both neighbors –  June Teufel Dreyer, Sino-Japanese rivalry and its implications for developing nations,  Asian Survey, vol. 46, no. 4, July / August 2006, p. 540-544.

[11] Also other countries, like France, after the torch lay incident in Paris ahead of the Olympic (directed i.g. against the retailer chain Carrefour).

[12] Frances Rosenbluth, Jun Saito, Annalisa Zinn, America’s policy toward East Asia: how it looks from Japan, Asian Survey, vol. 47,  no. 4, July / August 2007, p. 588-594.

[13] Jing Sun, Japan-Taiwan relations: unofficial in name only, Asian Survey, vol. 47, no.5, September / October 2007, p. 793.

[14] Yoshikazu Shimizu, China’s domestic politics behind the Senkaku incident, AJISS-Commentary, The Association of Japanese Institutes of Strategic Studies, 16 December 2010.

[15] Inoguchi, Takahashi,  Japan’s Foreign Policy in an Era of Global Change, St. Martin’s Press,  New York, 1993, p 6.

[16] The cost of stationing US military bases in Japan (host nation support) is estimated yearly at almost 5 billion USD.

[17] Joshua Rowan, The US-Japan security alliance, ASEAN and the South China Sea dispute, Asian Survey, vol. 45, no. 3, May / June 2005, p. 429.

[18] Banning Garnett and Bonnie Glaser, Chinese apprehensions about revitalization of the US-Japan alliance, Asian Survey, vol. 37, no. 4, April 1997,  p. 398. More on the US-Japan-Taiwan-China relationship see: Thomas Christensen, China, the US-Japan alliance and the security dilemma in East Asia, International Security, vol.23, no. 4, spring 1999, p. 49-80.


[20] Transcript: Rice, Rumsfeld, Japanese Ministers Review Security Alliance, 31 October 2005,  http://www.usinfo.

org/ wf-archive/2005/051031/epf103.htm

US-Japan alliance and rising China Reviewed by on 23 lutego 2012 .

THE US-JAPAN ALLIANCE AND RISING CHINA One of the major developments in recent years in the US-Japan security cooperation was related to the growth and behavior of Japan’s neighbor. Which is one of the reasons, that bring the mutual US-Japan military alliance back on track – the belligerence from China directed at both allies. Even




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