The United States, Japan, and China

Setting the Course

March 24, 2000


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During the twentieth century, as the United States grew into a world power, Americans confronted two major powers in Asia: China and Japan. Of course, there were and are other crucial factors in Asia, from the expansionist former Soviet Union to the unpredictable North Korea. But in this century, Americans struggled most of all to get their China and Japan policies right. There is no reason to believe that Chinese and Japanese issues will be less central to U.S. policy in the twenty-first century.

The high costs of policy failure, including the scores of thousands of Americans killed and wounded in the Pacific theater during World War II and later in Korea and Indochina, and the fear of only a decade ago that Japan might overtake America economically focused Americans on ‘‘threats,’’ real and imaginary, coming from Japan and China. While perhaps not widely appreciated by Americans, the perceptions and misperceptions held by Chinese and Japanese about each other are as complicated as those that have driven American policy toward those two countries.

Asia expert Neil Silver argues that the United States never had good relations simultaneously with China and Japan during the last century (except for a relatively brief period in the latter part of the Cold War). American foreign policy practitioners and analysts argue that relations among the three countries should not be pursued as a zero-sum game. Yet, as Silver points out, “‘American(s) . . . have typically framed relations with China and Japan separately, not in parallel.” Besides casting critical light on the recent trilateral dynamics among the three nations, Silver offers a number of practical recommendations for how America can best advance its interests with both China and Japan.