Japan Speaker Series: The Rise of China and the US-Japan alliance

Key Points

  • The Belfer Center gathered a group of top-level American and Japanese academics to discuss the US-Japan alliance and the rise of China.
  • The event began with an introductory presentation by Harvard Professor Graham Allison, who discussed the rise of China and the danger of “Thucydides’s Trap.”
  • Keynote speaker Dr. Seiichiro Takagi provided the core of the discussion, warning China’s “grey zone” challenges in the East and South China Sea pose a major challenge for Japan.
  • A panel discussion consisting of notable scholars Dr. Joseph Nye, Dr. Taylor Fravel, and Dr. Toshi Yoshihara also provided a lively discussion of how the rise of China can be managed with the help of the US-Japan alliance.

Harvard University’s Belfer Center hosted a half-day conference on March 23, 2017, gathering a group of top-level American and Japanese academics to discuss the US-Japan alliance and the rise of China. Gary Samore, the Belfer Center’s Executive Director for Research, moderated the event, which was well attended by scholars and students of Harvard and nearby universities, including a large group of scholars from the US Naval War College. Consul General Rokuichiro Michii and other members of the Japanese Consulate in Boston were notable attendees, along with a number of other policy officials.

The event began with an introductory presentation by Harvard Professor Graham Allison, who discussed the rise of China and the danger of “Thucydides’s Trap.” Identified by the ancient Greek historian Thucydides, the concept describes the inevitable structural stress that occurs in international relations when a rising power challenges a ruling power. Examining the 16 cases of Thucydides’s Trap in the last 500 years, Allison found that 12 cases ended in war between great powers, while in only 4 cases was war avoided. Drawing on the lessons of history, he concluded that war was avoided only in cases where both the rising and ruling power were willing and able to make significant, uncomfortable changes from the status quo. Allison spent additional time focusing in-depth on the case of Japan’s rise in the early 20th century, and lessons that could be drawn from Japan’s wars with Russian and the United States. He also examined an additional case which is not currently in his list of 16 cases: the surpassing of the Japanese economy by China around the turn of the century. He suggested further research into this case could be fruitful.

Keynote speaker Dr. Seiichiro Takagi, Senior Research Advisor at The Japan Institute of International Affairs, provided the core of the discussion. He expressed confidence that Thucydides’s Trap can be avoided, but warned that Japan must help maintain the global rules based order in the face of China’s rise.

Takagi also debunked a cliché common in Chinese political discourse: that Japan was shocked by being surpassed economically by China, and consequently fanned the “China threat” narrative out of jealously and fear (most recently, Takagi pointed out, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi referred to Japan as having a “mental illness” which prevented it from accepting the rise of China).

In Japan] we are not surprised by the [rise of China], but suffer a kind of disappointment, or disillusionment, and betrayed expectations… by end of the first decade of the twenty-first century, Japan realized that the new China was not going to be as friendly as it had thought.

Seiichiro Takagi, Senior Research Advisor, Japan Institute of International Affairs:

Takagi presented a chart with data showing that Japanese popular sentiment was not significantly affected by being surpassed economically. The chart showed there was little impact in 2011 on popular sentiment when China overtook Japan. Negative feelings toward China had in fact started to increase well before this point, in 2004, when Japanese football players in the Asia Cup games held in China were mobbed and mistreated by violent Chinese fans. This event was closely reported in Japan, and was in fact key to creating anti-China sentiment among Japanese.

Furthermore, Japan’s loss of global #2 status in 2010, which became apparent 2011, not a top item in Japanese newspapers. Japan’s reaction to the event was “rather dull,” not shocked or alarmed. The reasons for this were varied. First, problems with rapid Chinese economic development, such as environment degradation, were widely recognized. So many commentators noted the lack of sustainability in China’s economic model. Second, China surpassed Japan specifically in total GDP, but Japanese recognized that China’s per-capita GDP was still only 1/10 or less that of Japan’s; China had a large GDP primarily because of its large population. Third, this event had long been predicted, so it was not a surprise.

Takagi argued persuasively that today’s negative China-Japan relations were primarily the result of increasingly assertive foreign policy behavior and protectionist attitudes by the Chinese government. His theory was that China’s economic growth led to increased Chinese confidence, which in turn led to Chinese assertiveness. This is what led to Japanese unease, not economic growth itself.

A US-China war can be avoided. But is avoiding war enough?... As far as I’m concerned the real question is not whether a power transition [between the US and China] takes place, but what kind of international order will result.

Seiichiro Takagi

Describing how Japan, like the United States, had played a crucial role in helping China develop its economy and open its markets, he argued that Japan had suffered “disappointment and disillusionment” with China, for several reasons. First, it was assumed that China would begin to liberalize politically, but this has not occurred. Second, China was expected to become a “responsible stakeholder” on the world stage, but this also has not happened. Most importantly, Japan initially believed that developing close economic ties with China would transform it into a peaceful neighbor. After the Tiananmen Square incident in 1989, Japan was the first country to lift sanctions on China, in 1991, for this reason. However, by the 2000s it became clear that China was not going to become friendly as had been anticipated.

Takagi concluded by arguing that Thucydides’s Trap was not inevitable. In his calculation, war with China is not very likely, at least within the next 10-15 years, for several reasons. First, both sides know the danger of nuclear mutually assured destruction (MAD). Second, the US-Japan alliance, especially the US commitment to include the Senkaku Islands in the defense agreement, achieves a strong deterrence factor: realistic assessments in Chinese publications agree that China should not fight Japan or the US, because it is a fight they are very unlikely to win. Third, any contingency on the Korean peninsula would likely be dealt with through extensive US-China consultation, so they are unlikely to clash. Fourth, Taiwan’s leadership knows better than to declare independence, so a conflict over Taiwan is not very likely.

However, Takagi warned that preventing open war may not be enough, pointing out that, while the US-Japanese alliance can deter attack, China’s “grey zone” challenges in the East and South China Sea pose a major challenge. China’s hybrid warfare tactics, such as maritime militia, are difficult to respond to. Japan can respond to these challenges, however, but only if China doesn’t keep growing its paramilitary forces further. If it does, Japan will eventually have to decide whether to counter those paramilitary forces with the JSDF, which would probably draw in Chinese naval forces. So this is a difficult problem to handle.

A panel discussion consisting of notable scholars Joseph Nye, Taylor Fravel, and Toshi Yoshihara also provided a lively discussion of how the rise of China can be managed with the help of the US-Japan alliance.

Our alliance structure is crucial in terms of managing the rise of China… Japan is the bedrock of our position in East Asia. So we absolutely need to deter Chinese action against Japan.

Joseph Nye, Harvard University Distinguished Service Professor

Nye discussed the importance of managing fear, perception, and misperception in handling China’s rise. He pointed out that the fear created by a nation’s perceived rise is more important than a nation’s actual economic and military rise, in terms of causing Thucydides’s Trap. He warned that excessive fear in the US-China relationship was very dangerous, and disputed the idea that China may have already passed the United States, or was about to. He also noted that declining powers like Russia have a tendency to lash out militarily, and so may be more dangerous that rising powers like China. Therefore he warned not to focus too heavily on Thucydides’s Trap.

Alliances are very important. If you asked an alien from Mars, ‘Which side would you choose?’ The U.S. with its 60 alliances, or China with three―It’s a no brainer.

Joseph Nye

Fravel examined China’s strategy to rise without conflict, noting that China is well aware of Thucydides’s Trap. China’s current strategy is Xi Jinping’s slogan of a “new type of great power relations.” President Obama was wary of this idea, because the US was afraid it would mean giving in to the Chinese view of core interests and spheres of influence. However, Fravel argued that the overall idea was good, even if the policies were not, because it would be a very healthy discussion to have, saying the fact that China wants to talk about how to avoid conflict is a good thing. Second, he noted that China is taking a number of active steps to avoid conflict, including deepening its military-to-military relations with the US, creating a playbook for avoiding accidental crises, and avoiding a large nuclear buildup. Finally, he concluded that Chinese military strategy remains focused on deterring conflict, rather than coercing other nations in the region. However, he also pointed to China’s “salami slicing” strategy and use of maritime militia and hybrid warfare tactics in the East and South China Seas as major challenges. He argued that China’s assertive approach the sovereignty disputes may be accelerated by the rise in strength and influence of the Chinese navy as a bureaucratic actor.

China’s willingness to use its [military] assets [abroad] has lagged far behind the expansion of its interests. In part this is because of a lack of experience, but I think this is also due to a desire to avoiding provoking fear.

 Taylor Fravel, MIT Professor of Political Science

Yoshihara detailed China’s naval buildup, noting that in 2013 and 2014 China launched more new ships than any other nation, in 2015 had the largest navy in Asia. Furthermore, China is on track to have the largest and second-most capable far-seas navy, after the US, by 2020. China had 303 ships in 2016, compared to 270 for the US. Of those, 66 Chinese ships today can be considered “modern,” but this number could surpass 90 by 2020. However, he pointed out that China’s naval rise is not unprecedented: if we look to the past, when determined powers, including the US and Japan, wanted to become sea powers, they all roughly followed the same 20-year timeline to do so. Beginning in the 1980s, China is on track by historical comparison. He identified China’s historical perception of being bullied during a “century of humiliation,” including by a supposed 470 instances of invasion by sea, as a major factor in its drive to become a sea power.

The U.S. needs to get used to the reality of Chinese sea power—to become accustomed to Chinese power and not adopt a posture of complete rejection. Only then can we begin a conversation about managing China’s rise.

Toshi Yoshihara, Senior Fellow, Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments

Yoshihara also pointed out that China is focused on close to home contingencies, and is well aware that it does not need as much naval capacity as the US in order to triumph close to home, given geographical advantages and the fact that US forces must cover the entire globe, while China’s do not. Therefore the US must accept that its naval position has deteriorated significantly in the Western Pacific, and that it needs to become accustomed to Chinese power rather than adopting a posture of complete rejection and denial. However, to improve its position, the US should: consider how many more ships it should build, improve the resilience of its forces, improve its forces’ ability to operate while at risk, and focus on exploiting China’s military weaknesses, including the Chinese navy’s weaknesses in anti-submarine warfare.

All panel participants stressed the critical importance of the US-Japan alliance. Nye lauded the “impressive” capabilities of the Japan Self-Defense Forces, and described the US-Japan alliance as “crucial” for managing the rise of China. He dismissed concerns raised by issues in the US-Philippine alliance, noting that the US-Japan relationship was much stronger, and that Japan was a far more reliable ally. Fravel described the US-Japan alliance as a strong deterrent to Chinese aggression, and suggested helping Japan build up its own forces, especially coast guard forces. Yoshihara noted that geography makes Japan central to US strategic interests, and also suggested the US should do more to enable Japan’s self-defense capabilities.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Levine, Nathan. “Japan Speaker Series: The Rise of China and the US-Japan alliance.” , . (presented at , Cambridge, Massachusetts, United States).

The Author


Graham Allison headshot

Joseph S. Nye, Jr.

Gary Samore