Report - Center for Strategic and International Studies

The U.S.-Japan Alliance: Anchoring Stability in Asia

| August 2012


This report on the U.S.-Japan alliance comes at a time of drift in the relationship. As leaders in both the United States and Japan face a myriad of other challenges, the health and welfare of one of the world's most important alliances is endangered. Although the arduous efforts of Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell and his colleagues in both governments have largely kept the alliance stable, today's challenges and opportunities in the region and beyond demand more. Together, we face the re-rise of China and its attendant uncertainties, North Korea with its nuclear capabilities and hostile intentions, and the promise of Asia's dynamism. Elsewhere, there are the many challenges of a globalized world and an increasingly complex security environment. A stronger and more equal alliance is required to adequately address these and other great issues of the day.

For such an alliance to exist, the United States and Japan will need to come to it from the perspective, and as the embodiment, of tier-one nations. In our view, tier-one nations have significant economic weight, capable military forces, global vision, and demonstrated leadership on international concerns. Although there are areas in which the United States can better support the alliance, we have no doubt of the United States' continuing tier-one status. For Japan, however, there is a decision to be made. Does Japan desire to continue to be a tier-one nation, or is she content to drift into tier-two status? If tier-two status is good enough for the Japanese people and their government, this report will not be of interest. Our assessment of, and recommendations for, the alliance depend on Japan being a full partner on the world stage where she has much to contribute.

In posing this question, we are cognizant of the problems confounding Japan's influence and role in the world today. Japan has a dramatically aging population and declining birth rate. Her debt-to-GDP ratio is over 200 percent. The Japanese people have been served by six different prime ministers in six years. And, there is a growing sense of pessimism and inward focus among many young Japanese. But, Japan is not destined to see her importance wane. Japan is fully capable of remaining a tier-one nation. It is only a question of her disposition.

As many challenges as Japan faces, there exist many underappreciated and underutilized dimensions of Japan's national power and influence. Japan is the world's third-largest economy, with a consumer sector twice the size of China's. Japan continues to have tremendous economic potential that could be unleashed by reform and competition. More openness to free trade and immigration and greater participation by women in the workforce would add significantly to Japan's gross domestic product (GDP) growth. Japan's soft power is also considerable. She rates among the top three countries in international respect and first in the world in terms of "national brand." Japan's Self-Defense Forces (JSDF)—now the most trusted institution in Japan—are poised to play a larger role in enhancing Japanese security and reputation if anachronistic constraints can be eased.

Japan is not an insignificant country positioned in a quiet part of the world. The United States and others rely on Japan as the maritime lynchpin to a stable, strategic equilibrium in the Asia-Pacific region; the second-largest contributor to the United Nations (UN), International Monetary Fund (IMF), and other leading multinational institutions; and the host of U.S. forces that keep sea-lanes open for the world's most dynamic hemisphere.

The United States needs a strong Japan no less than Japan needs a strong United States. And, it is from this perspective that we address the alliance and its stewardship. For Japan to remain standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the United States, she will need to move forward with us. Japan has been a leader in Asia in the past and can continue to be in the future.

The following report presents a consensus view of the members of a bipartisan study group on the U.S.-Japan alliance. The report specifically addresses energy, economics and global trade, relations with neighbors, and security-related issues. Within these areas, the study group offers policy recommendations for Japan and the United States, which span near- and long-term time frames. These recommendations are intended to bolster the alliance as a force for peace, stability, and prosperity in the Asia-Pacific region and beyond.

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For Academic Citation: Armitage, Richard L. and Joseph S. Nye. “The U.S.-Japan Alliance: Anchoring Stability in Asia.” Center for Strategic and International Studies, August 2012.