Many analysts currently detect malaise in Japan about its alliance with the US. Some of this relates to North Korea’s nuclear weapons and a concern that the US will not adequately represent Japan’s interests (such as accounting for Japanese citizens abducted by North Korea years ago.) Other issues concern the basing of US marines in Okinawa and sharing the costs of moving some to Guam. The list is long, but they might best be thought of as "housekeeping" issues: Many a couple can quarrel over them without contemplating divorce.
There is a deeper level of concern, however, which relates to Japan’s fear of being marginalized as the US turns toward a rising China. For example, some Japanese complain that China receives far more attention than Japan in the US election campaign. Such anxiety is not surprising: US and Japanese defense capabilities are not symmetrical, and that is bound to agitate the more dependent party.
Over the years, various suggestions have been made with a view to making the alliance more symmetrical, including that Japan become a “normal” country with a full panoply of military capabilities. But such measures would raise more problems than they would solve. Even if Japan implemented them, they would still not equal the capacity of the US or eliminate the asymmetry. It is worth noting that during the Cold War, the US’ European allies had similar anxieties about dependency and abandonment, despite their own military capabilities.
The real guarantee of US resolve to defend Japan is the presence of US troops and bases, and cooperation on issues — such as ballistic missile defense — aimed at protecting both nations.
Moreover, there are two good answers to the question of whether the US would abandon Japan in favor of China: values and threat.
Japan and the US, unlike China, are both democracies, and they share many values. In addition, both Japan and the US face a common challenge from China’s rise and have a strong interest in ensuring that it does not become a threat. The US regards a triangular Japan-China-US relationship as the basis of stability in East Asia, and wants good relations between all three. But the triangle is not equilateral, because the US is allied with Japan, and China need not become a threat to either country if they maintain that alliance.
On the other hand, China’s power should not be exaggerated. A recent poll indicates that one-third of Americans believe that China will “soon dominate the world,” while 54 percent see its emergence as a “threat to world peace.”
To be sure, measured by official exchange rates, China is the world’s fourth largest economy, and it is growing at 10 percent annually. But China’s income per capita is only 4 percent that of the US. If both countries’ economies continue to grow at their current rates, China’s could be larger than America’s in 30 years, but US per capita income will still be four times greater. Furthermore, China’s lags far behind in military power, and lacks the US’ “soft power” resources, such as Hollywood and world-class universities.
China’s internal evolution also remains uncertain. It has lifted 400 million people out of poverty since 1990, but another 400 million live on less that US$2 per day. Along with enormous inequality, China has a migrant labor force of 140 million, severe pollution, and rampant corruption.