IN 1827, the German economist Friedrich List warned Americans that if they did not protect their manufacturing industries more effectively, in one hundred years they would end up facing China from a weak position. Reading that admonition in the late 1980s, one was struck by what seemed his glaring error: List had missed Japan-the real Asian threat. Yet, with another quarter-century behind us, he seems more than prescient in seeing Beijing as Washington's preeminent competitor; we were in fact the ones who erred by focusing on the wrong country. In now shifting our attention to the Asian mainland, however, we risk making yet another mistake by consigning Japan to the status of a relatively unimportant, even irrelevant, ally. The strategic realities underlying the U.S.-Japan relationship have in fact not changed dramatically-certainly not as much as the rapidly oscillating perceptions of the alliance on both sides of the Pacific would suggest.
WASHINGTON AND Tokyo long ago affirmed their shared interest in preventing a hostile actor from gaining control of the Asian mainland. On Japan's part, persistent strategic anxieties about power dynamics on the continent gave Tokyo an incentive to seek outside support. From the U.S. perspective, an alliance was needed to consolidate its position in the Western Pacific. Thus began our tight-knit relationship. Whether directed at the Soviet Union and China between 1948 and the early 1970s, at the USSR alone for the next two decades or (sotto voce) at a rising Beijing today, the geopolitics of the alliance remained remarkably constant. The same is true of Tokyo and Washington's shared interest in preserving stability, open markets and security in Northeast Asia.