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The US-Japan Alliance and the Sino-Japanese Relations By Yuan Zheng


Premier Li Keqiang paid a visit to Japan recently, the first visit made by a Chinese premier to Japan in 8 years, which indicates the gradual improving of Sino-Japanese relationship. At the time when the Sino-Japanese relations returned to normal, this paper intends to elaborate on the US factor in the Sino-Japanese relations from the perspective of the US-Japan alliance.


I. The Strengthening of the US-Japan Alliance

The alliance system is the “wing of hegemony” of the US, and the major pillar of the American power. Since the end of the Cold War, the US has been trying to enhance its multilateral alliance system in the Asia-Pacific region, to give a bigger role to the off-shore balancer: in the past, there were bilateral alliances like the US-Japan, the US-ROK and the US-Australia alliances, and now theUS is making great efforts to forge multilateral alliances like the US-Japan-ROK, the US-Japan-Australia or the US-Japan-India-Australia alliances.

The US-Japan alliance is one of the most important alliances of the US, which came into existence during the Cold War, mainly intended to confront the threats from the Soviet Union. In the wake of the Cold War, as its chief rival had gone collapsed, the US-Japan alliance was once in a state of“drifting”, but soon found a new target.

Although going through twists and turns, the US-Japan alliance has on the whole been steadilystrengthened. In fact, the US-Japan alliance has undergone a transformation from a relatively simple military pact in the past to a comprehensive security institution now. During the Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations, the US-Japan alliance experienced three adjustments, with theUS-Japan security system expanding from “purely defensive defense” to “responding to peripheral emergencies” and further to “facing global challenges”, and the Japanese Self-Defense Forces extending their missions overseas, which, as a matter of fact, has broken through the limits of its Pacifist Constitution. Till the Obama administration, strengthening the US-Japan alliance had become the priority among the priorities in the US “Asia-Pacific Rebalancing” Strategy. Especially after Abe came once again into power, the US and Japan stepped up the pace of their cooperation. The New US-Japan Defense Cooperation Guideline issued in 2015 has further expanded the scope of their cooperation, demanding the alliance to realize “seamless, mighty, flexible and efficient” coordination and response either in peace or at war time.

In addition to the North Korean nuclear issue, responding to the rise of China is an important factor for the adjustment of the US-Japan alliance, as the US and Japan share common needs to contain China. Since the beginning of the new century, faced with the continuous rising of China and the need to maintain its dominance in the Western Pacific, the US has kept strengthening the alliance through various means, and even gone so far as to “let Japan out of the cage”, give consent to and encourage Japan’s constitutional revision, and permit Japan to send its self-defense force overseas, in order to make up the “short slabs” long existing in the alliance and make the alliance more efficient and deterrent. Meanwhile, Japan has taken the alliance as a springboard to seek for the support from the US in its bid to become a “normal state” and realize its ambition to become a “major power”, by trying to revise its Pacifist Constitution and raise its military capabilities, so as to reach the goal of self-defense. The strengthening of the US-Japan alliance is bound to affect the security situation in the Western Pacific and bring effects that cannot be underestimated onto the external environment of China.


II.The US-Japan Coordination and Cooperation on Indo-Pacific Strategy

Since taking office, Trump has definitely proposed the concept of Indo-Pacific strategy, attaching greater importance to the role of India. The Indo-Pacific strategy proposed by the Trump administration is not something new. As a matter of fact, since the Clinton administration, the US has attached great importance to its relations with India and India’s unique position in geopolitics. During the George W. Bush administration, the US-India relationship was getting strengthened. In the later time of the Obama administration, the US-India relationship was rather hot. The informal US-Japan-India-Australia meeting held last November at Da Nang in Vietnam marked the beginning of the four countries to forge a coordination mechanism among them.

From the earlier concept of “Indo-Pacific” to the proposal of the “free and open Indo-Pacific strategy”, Japan has been an active builder and promoter. Compared with other countries, Japan proposed the policy much earlier and has remained more active. In fact, some of the concepts proposed by Japan have been incorporated into the US Indo-Pacific strategy. The reason why Japan has so actively promoted the Indo-Pacific strategy is not very complicated: first, to ensure the safety of its lifeline on the sea from the Middle East, to the Indian Ocean and to the Western Pacific; second, to support its maritime strategy of going to high seas militarily as a “normal state”; third, to join other countries in containing the rise of China; and fourth, to hedge against China’s “Belt and Road” strategy. So to speak, Japan’s active promoting of the Indo-Pacific strategy is connected with its own strategic objectives, such as responding to the change of geostrategic structure, containing the rise of China as an emerging major power, and achieving self-reliance in defense.

There is a tendency that the US and Japan are strengthening coordination on the Indo-Pacific strategy. In addition to security cooperation, Japan is presently trying to make infrastructure construction as part of the Indo-Pacific strategy. Under the circumstances that Trump is pursuing an “America First” policy and focusing most of his energy on domestic development, Japan hopes to undertake more responsibilities in promoting the development of the coordination mechanism among the four nations. It is likely that the US will play a leadership role in the future, while Japan will contribute both money and manpower with an intention to make the coordination mechanism among the four countries more solid and bigger as well as keep pushing it forward.


III.The Attitude of Trump Administration on the US-Japan Alliance

When Trump came into power, Japan was given a sigh of relief that this administration of the US still attaches importance to the alliance system and underlines the role of the US-Japan alliance.

Whether the US National Security Strategy or the US National Defense Strategy, they have all emphasized that the US alliance and partnership systems are still pillars of American global security. The US National Security Strategy pointed out, the U.S. allies are critical to responding to mutual threats, such as North Korea, and preserving the mutual interests in the Indo-Pacific region. The report also made it clear, “we welcome and support the strong leadership role of our critical ally, Japan.”

However, Trump coming into power has brought quite a number of uncertainties of American attitude to its allies. The “America First” policy pursued by Trump demands its allies including Japan and the ROK bear more of the costs for their defense. The US National Defense Strategy pointed out, the Trump administration stressed America’s alliance is based on free will and shared responsibilities; the US will take its responsibilities, while wishing its allies and partners to fairly share the responsibilities of the reciprocal collective security. Trump once expressed openly, if Japan and the ROK could not undertake more responsibilities of their self-defense, the US would consider pulling out its troops from the two countries, which made Japan much worried and forced Prime Minister Abe rushing to Washington D.C., as soon as Trump getting into office.

On trade issues, despite Japan’s opposition, Trump declared the US withdrawal from the TPP soon after coming to power, which made Japan feel much frustrated. There is also the issue of trade deficits, over which Trump put pressures not only on China, but also on Japan. Trade frictions have caused great concerns in Japan: first, there is the trade friction between the US and Japan. Reducing trade deficit was one of the major campaign promises made by Trump. According to the statistics of the US Department of Commerce, the US trade deficit toward Japan in 2017 was US$ 68.85 billion, ranking Japan the third largest trade surplus country to the US. Not long ago, when Abe paid a visit to the US, the leaders of the two countries agreed to start a new round of consultation for a “free, fair and reciprocal trade agreement”. Nonetheless, Trump was not interested in returning to the TPP, but was more willing to start negotiations on bilateral trade to reduce the “huge trade deficit” of the US toward Japan. The hopeful Abe failed in the end to talk Trump to “be lenient to” Japan on the issue of high tariffs on steel and aluminum products. Second, the trade frictions between the US and China have also made Japan much concerned. After all, China is the biggest trade partner of Japan, and there are more than twenty thousand Japanese enterprises investing in China. The China-Japan bilateral trade once peaked at more than US$ 340 billion, and remained at US$ 270 billion annually in the last two years. Once a trade war erupts between China and the US, the exports of the Japanese enterprises in China to the US would be greatly affected, as their products are marked “Made in China” and on the bill for the trade surplus of China to the US.

On the one hand, China is getting more powerful with each passing day, with its influence rising in East Asia; and one the other hand, the Trump administration is self-concerned and ignores the appeals of its allies. Such a circumstance has forced the Abe administration to make some adjustment to its China policy, which is the deep-rooted reason that the Sino-Japanese relationship has been improving since 2017.


IV.The US Factor in the Sino-Japanese Relations

As the US-Japan alliance is strengthening, the US factor has become an external factor that affects or even determines to some extent Japan’s China policy. Currently, there are four major issues affecting the Sino-Japanese relations, in which the US factor more or less plays a role.

First, there is the historical issue. China upholds the idea of “past experience, if not forgotten, is a guide for the future”, while Japan is inconsistent in its words and afraid of facing the history of aggression. On the historical issue, the attitude of the US is rather dubious. On the one hand, Japan has remained vague on the historical issue, which has something to do with the US not making a thorough settlement with Japan. Out of the needs to wage a Cold War at the end of the Second World War, the US did not make a thorough settlement of Japan’s aggression. On the other hand, the US cannot tolerate Japan going too far on the issues of Japan’s aggression and “comfort women” (or forced prostitution). The general attitude of the US is trying to minimize the US-Japan war, and stressing on reconciliation. However, the US would not tolerate Japan to deny its history of aggression in an all-round way, and at the same time set a bottom line for Japan’s military development, namely not tolerating Japan to possess nuclear weapons, while providing nuclear umbrella for Japan. Meanwhile, the US is also trying to increase its influence and control over Japan through strengthening the US-Japan alliance to prevent Japan from running loose. From this perspective, China and the US have some intersection of interests on certain issues with regard to Japan.

Second, there is the issue of territorial disputes. The ownership of the Diaoyu Islands is an issue of territorial disputes between China and Japan, with the two countries confronting each other in recent years over the issue, which tends to intensify. Although the US has never recognized the Diaoyu Islands belonging to Japan, and the US Congressional Research Bureau even issued a report to affirm that the Diaoyu Islands belonged to China in history, the US administration expressed on different occasions “the Diaoyu Islands and its affiliated islands are under the administration of Japan, applicable to Article V of the Japan-US Security Treaty, and the US opposes any unilateral action that tries to undermine (Japan’s) administration over the Diaoyu Islands and its affiliated islands.” Moreover, the US and Japan have increased military deployment toward the Diaoyu Islands. On the issue of Taiwan, the US would respond to the changes of situation in the Taiwan Strait together with Japan, and insist on developing relations with Taiwan, which is in fact no less than setting obstacles to the great cause of China’s reunification. 

Third, there is the issue of geo-security. For some time, Japan was contending for dominance with China in East Asia, with Japan hyping up the so-called “China Threat Theory”. One of its purposes is to find an excuse for increasing its military capacity and lifting bans on its self-defense forces. In strategic layout, Japan has also placed its focus of defense on China. The US and Japan have common interests in jointly containing the rise of China. The US is interested in giving Japan a role to hamper China, while Japan intends to realize its own security appeal by relying on the US-Japan alliance. The US has stationed troops in Japan, which has made the US intention to strengthen its forward military presence come true. It can be said, the strategic deployment of the US-Japan alliance has, to some extent, compressed the strategic space for China’s rise.

Fourth, there is the issue of strategic mutual trust. When the three abovementioned issues got intertwined, it has made it difficult for China and Japan to establish strategic mutual trust. The existence of the US-Japan alliance has incorporated Japan into the track of the US Asia-Pacific strategy, while Japan is also interested in containing China’s rise and realizing its “normal state” status with the assistance of the US. As a result, the Sino-Japanese relationship, already beset with the frictions brought about by historical and territorial dispute issues, has become more complicated.

In sum, it is very hard for the Sino-Japanese relations to get substantially improved in a short-run.Therefore, we cannot pin hopes too high on only one top-level visit. Nonetheless, China and Japan are close neighbors after all, so that a stable and improved bilateral relationship is conducive not only to the well-being of the people of the two countries, but also to peace and stability of East Asia, and in line with the interests of the two countries.

(The author is Director of Department of American Diplomacy, Institute of American Studies, CASS. This article was received on May 15, 2018.)

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