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Easing Japan’s Alliance Fears

Author: Sheila A. Smith, Senior Fellow for Japan Studies
June 1, 2008
Far Eastern Economic Review


For some time now, policy makers in Tokyo have been wondering aloud about their alliance relationship with the United States. Concerns abound about Washington’s handling of recent key regional security issues, most conspicuously the effort to negotiate the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. The worry that the U.S. will suddenly embrace a rising China continues to inform longer-term thinking. The historic American penchant to be deeply enchanted with China—despite periodic episodes of contention over trade and human rights—is not a distant memory. It is a contemporary source of anxiety, one that was exacerbated somewhat by the essay in Foreign Affairs magazine last fall by U.S. presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.

Much of this sense of vulnerability arises because Japan is now in a much different strategic setting than during the Cold War. For decades, Tokyo assumed that the only conceivable way Japan would become involved in a crisis or conflict was if their superpower ally, the U.S., became engaged in a regional war.

Today, Japanese policy makers must consider the possibility that their country could be the first target of an aggressor—North Korea comes first to the Japanese imagination. But in the decades ahead, it is not inconceivable that another and more intimidating regional power might also be included in scenario planning in Tokyo. Both of these imaginable threats are now nuclear, giving plenty reason for asking whether the current security arrangement, based on an entirely different global and regional context more than half a century ago, is still appropriate.

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