Converging Interests and Shared Values: The U.S.-Japan Bilateral Alliance Enters the 21 st Century

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 By Eric Sayers

Mr. Sayers is a graduate student in political science at the University of Western Ontario, and is an editorial assistant at the Center for Security Policy.


Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, leaders in Washington and Tokyo questioned the continued viability of the US-Japan alliance. Washington’s desire to benefit from the newfound “peace dividend” led many in Tokyo to fear that the United States would discontinue its security commitments to Japan. Further complicating the alliance was Tokyo’s decision to assist only financially in the Gulf War and to deny Washington intelligence and logistical support during the 1993-94 North Korean nuclear crisis.  However, a series of events in the mid-1990s, including the growing strength of China and the continued belligerence of the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea (DPRK), forced Japan to rethink the direction of its foreign policy and its relationship with the United States. Although formal steps to strengthen the alliance were initially slow, the events of September 11th , and the subsequent Japanese response, helped prove to both states that a strengthened alliance was in their mutual interest.  In analyzing the relationship between the US and Japan, this paper will attempt to demonstrate how a convergence of interests since the mid-1990s in relation to the threat from rogue states and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, terrorism, and the rise of China have forced the two nations to reformulate their strategic relationship into a more “normal” alliance that can effectively cope with the challenges of the 21st century.

In order to analyze the reasons for the reemergence of the bilateral alliance, as well as the steps being taken to ensure its success, this essay will be divided into four sections. The first section will briefly outline the strains on the relationship following the end of the Cold War. The second section will focus on the security issues that helped drive Japan back towards the United States. These include the concern over China’s growing military build-up, which culminated with the Taiwan-strait crisis of 1996, as well as the threat posed by North Korea, specifically its test of a Taepodong 1 missile in 1998. The third section will look at the reemergence of the relationship after September 11th. The final section will discuss the challenges and opportunities both countries face as they work to reformulate the alliance for the 21st century. This section will also outline the work of the US-Japan Security Consultative Committee (SCC) during the past five years, in its efforts to shift the alliance from the traditional “shield and spear” concept, to a more balanced and integrated strategic relationship that will allow both states to ensure “a balance of power that favors freedom,” both globally and regionally.

A Strained Alliance

In September 1951, United States Secretary of State Dean Acheson and Japanese Prime              Minister Shigeru Yoshida signed the Security Treaty Between Japan and the United States of America. Under this treaty, the United States agreed to defend Japan against foreign acts of aggression, while Japan, now bound by the restraints of its new Constitution (specifically, the pacifistic Article 9), which disallowed its right to collective self-defense, agreed to allow the United States to establish military bases on its territory. This treaty established the beginning of the strategic bilateral alliance that has bound the US and Japan for the past half-century.

During the Cold War, Japan followed what became known as the Yoshida Doctrine. Under this doctrine, Japan chose to remain dependent upon the US security guarantee, while continuing to develop economically. However, by the 1970s and 1980s Japan’s situation in relation to the United States had changed considerably. In addition to becoming a major economic power, Japan was also responsible for financing much of the US debt and benefited from a large surplus in US-Japan trade relations. Relations were strained even further due to the inability of US businesses to access the Japanese market. By the end of the Cold War many in the United States, concerned with the concept of what Paul Kennedy called “imperial overstretch,” began to feel that Japan was exploiting the relationship by free-riding on US security guarantees.1 To its credit, Japan did increase its defense spending so as to allow it to maintain the world’s third largest military budget in absolute terms.2

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