Three Interpretations of the US-Japan-China Security Triangle

Three Interpretations of the US-Japan-China Security Triangle

East Asia Forum, May 2010

East Asia is dominated by the security triangle between the US, Japan and China. The US-Japan Alliance has greater aggregated economic and military might, but has been relatively static in recent years. Simultaneously, Chinese economic and military power is growing exponentially. In this context, growing Sino-Japanese political ties seem to indicate that Japan is considering its options.

Is a realignment in the security triangle taking place or are these developments merely cosmetic?

In his International Security article, ‘The Future of US-China Relations’ (2005), Aaron L. Friedberg discusses the US-Chinese relationship in terms of the three schools of international relations theory: realism, liberalism, and constructivism. Using the same framework, this piece analyses the US-Japan Alliance to see what factors might lead to its continuation or dissolution in the face of a growing China.

Realism: the US-Japan Alliance could go either way

At a general level, realism posits that states are in a Hobbesian zero-sum competition for power and influence, and that states are compelled to act only by their own self-interest. A state’s self-interest is defined according to the prevailing international power balance.

Adopting a realist viewpoint, Japan’s shift away from the US and toward China is a natural reaction to the rise of China and the decline of the US, evidenced by the financial crisis and by the steady draw on American power of the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. Japanese self-interest demands that it recognise the prevailing power-shift in international relations, gives less weight to the Japan-US alliance, and simultaneously strengthens its relationship with China.

But realism does not demand one course of action. Realists might also point to the zero-sum nature of international relations and suggest that Japan’s power is reduced as Chinese influence grows in the region. Following this line of reasoning, Japan’s self-interest would be best served by maintaining the US alliance and using it – together with other Asian relationships – to push against Chinese hegemony.

Liberalism: regional integration (with some associated issues)

Liberalism argues that economic interdependence and international institutions will gradually impel states away from a competitive framework towards a cooperative framework. Modern liberalism, exemplified by Thomas Friedman’s Lexus and the Olive Tree, holds that international integration will cause a gradually cause all states to democratise, as democracies are the most efficient way of developing wealth in a globalised world. Seen from this point of view, Hatoyama’s notion of an East Asian Community is an attempt by a liberal democracy to bind China to a regional institution in the hope that gradual exposure to democratic and open societies will have a long-term ‘socialising’ affect on the Chinese system. The end result, it is hoped, will be democratisation in China, and comprehensive regional integration.

One problem with this interpretation is that it does not deal in specifics. It leaves the very real social upheaval of Chinese democratisation to the distant future and does not entertain the very real possibility that the Chinese Communist Party may remain the only game in the Chinese town. If this were the case, the US-Japan alliance would suffer severe tension as Japan sought to balance its security relationship with the United States on one hand, and its community partner interests on the other.

Constructivism: pulling Japan towards the US-Japan alliance

Constructivism holds that international politics are not merely influenced by state interaction, trade relations, or military power, but also by the identity, the beliefs and norms of the political elites who direct state policies. According to constructivists, public opinion also influences the actions of states.

What does public opinion in China and Japan suggest about the US-Japan Alliance, or the Sino-Japanese relationship?

Chinese and Japanese public opinion is characterised by mutual antipathy with deep historical roots. Given this, adopting a constructivist viewpoint, it seems unlikely that the Sino-Japanese alliance could develop too much further. In fact, public opinion in Japan, and indeed in the United States, generally favours a strong US-Japan alliance at the expense of strengthening the Sino-Japanese relationship, and it is arguable that the current unpopularity of the DPJ is a direct result of the DPJ’s emphasis upon China at the expense of the US. Constructivism does allow for social beliefs to shift. But the current growth of nationalism in both China and Japan, indicates that a shift away from the US-Japan alliance is unlikely.

What do the beliefs of Japanese political elites portend for the security triangle?

While China is often called a hyper-realist power, the US and Japan both have a mixed record of viewing the international order in realist and liberal terms. Japan’s present government seems to emphasise liberalism. But it is possible that China’s realist approach will cause Japanese elites to adopt a more realist point of view. Certainly, China’s military development has caused concern within defence circles in both the US and Japan. On the other hand, the US government appears preoccupied with domestic issues. In this context, Japanese elites could decide that their future is better served by a strong Sino-Japanese relationship.

Conclusion: There are no simple answers

The US-Chinese-Japanese security triangle is a complex situation. Discussing it through the prism of three international relations theories helps to clarify possible developments. But this discussion has shown that, even if one of these theories is adopted at the expense of others, future movement remain hard to predict.


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