Rivals or Partners? Prospects for U.S.-Japan Cooperation in the Asia-Pacific Region

By Harding, Harry; Lincoln, Edward J. | Brookings Review, Summer 1993 | Go to article overview

Rivals or Partners? Prospects for U.S.-Japan Cooperation in the Asia-Pacific Region


Harding, Harry, Lincoln, Edward J., Brookings Review


With the end of the Cold War, U.S.-Japan relations have been set adrift. Economic competition between the two countries is increasing, at a time when the disintegration of the Soviet Union has left them without a common enemy. Government officials and policy analysts in both nations are searching for a new foundation for Japanese-American relations. One candidate has been a "global partnership," in which the two countries would deploy their economic, diplomatic, and military resources toward managing and solving international problems.

The concept seems so attractive that it has become part of the conventional wisdom in most discussions of U.S.-Japan relations. It was embodied in the Tokyo Declaration, issued at the end of President George Bush's visit to Japan in February 1992. It has been endorsed by Winston Lord, the new assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs in the Clinton administration, who said during his confirmation hearings that a "comprehensive, durable partnership with Japan" could help find solutions to "issues ranging from Korea to Somalia, Cambodia to Russia, technology to foreign aid, |and~ the environment to democracy."

And yet, although the global partnership between Japan and the United States is unlikely to be as contentious as their bilateral economic relationship, neither is it likely to be characterized completely by cooperation and harmony. In fact, any realistic appraisal of the prospects for such partnership must begin with the frank admission that the two countries will approach many international issues from divergent perspectives. Nowhere are the implications of these differences more apparent, or more important, than in the Asia-Pacific region.

The most obvious differences between the two countries are rooted in economics. Though they are thoroughly intertwined by vast flows of goods, capital, and technology, Japan and the United States are highly competitive. Not only do the industrial and commercial sectors in each society compete for advantage in the world marketplace, but also the two governments try to advance their national economic interests as international economic integration proceeds.

The two countries also have different geopolitical interests. Japan, naturally, is immediately concerned by military and political developments on the Asian mainland. While both the U.S. and Japanese economies are dependent on imports of natural resources and raw materials from abroad, Japan's sense of vulnerability to the disruption of supply is palpably greater than that of the United States. And Japan, unlike the United States, has territorial disputes with both Russia and China.

Finally, differences in the history, culture, and structure of U.S. and Japanese society affect their outlook on international issues. The United States, a highly competitive form of multiparty democracy, is less tolerant than Japan of quasi-democratic alternatives. The United States also generally assigns a higher priority to promoting human rights abroad than does Japan. In theory, if not always in practice, Americans believe in relatively laissez-faire models of economic development, whereas Japanese are willing to give a greater role to government. In addition, the bitter legacy of Japanese military expansionism in Asia has made Japan far less willing to devote its own military resources to solving military problems than is the United States.

This blend of common and divergent perspectives is evident in the approaches that the two countries take to a wide range of regional and subregional issues in the Western Pacific.

The Dilemma over China

Both the United States and Japan want to see China stable, modernizing, liberalizing, and at peace with its neighbors. Both have been eager to cooperate with the ambitious program of economic reform that has been under way in China since 1978, through direct investment, technology transfer, and official development assistance. …

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