Japan’s Interests in an Era of U.S.-China Strategic Competition

Japan’s Interests in an Era of U.S.-China Strategic Competition

Sheila A. Smith
January 21, 2020

This chapter examines the impact of increasing U.S.-China competition on Japan’s economic and security interests as well as on the U.S.-Japan alliance.



The rivalry between the U.S. and China will narrow Japan’s strategic options. The Abe cabinet has sought to avoid zero-sum trade-offs by maintaining close relations with Washington while seeking to avoid a direct clash with Beijing. Within Japan, few advocate for strategic alignment with China; to the contrary, public opinion and the business community strongly favor deepening ties with the U.S. Growing hostility between the U.S. and China will lead Japan to work hard to ensure its strategic protection and has already begun to shape Japan’s outreach to Indo-Pacific partners as a way of blunting Chinese influence. U.S. identification of China as a strategic challenge is positive for Japan as it binds the U.S. more deeply into offsetting China’s regional influence. But open hostilities will severely compromise Japan’s economic and security interests, making it likely that Tokyo could need to choose between Washington and Beijing at some point.

  • The U.S. should do all it can to support and enhance the collective effort with Japan to check Chinese influence. Besides ensuring a robust military presence, the U.S. should strengthen regional trade and investment opportunities as well as increase development and infrastructure assistance.
  • U.S. policymakers must continue to ensure that the U.S.-Japan alliance serves not only Japan’s military interests but also its economic interests to promote Tokyo’s continued alignment with Washington should the U.S.-China rivalry intensify.
  • The U.S. must not allow Japanese leaders to doubt the strategic protection offered by the U.S.-Japan security treaty or otherwise weaken the strategic asset of the alliance. Japan’s military capability and the bases the country offers are critical to deterring Chinese aggression.

Sheila A. Smith is a Senior Fellow for Japan Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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