Through Beijing's Eyes: How China Sees the U.S.-Japan Alliance

Yet another attempt to contain China, or a sincere partnership?

For Americans, Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to the United States was a proud reminder of what can be achieved through the advancement of common interests and universal values. The story has the making of a Hollywood film: once bitter adversaries, Japan and the United States have worked together to build an alliance and global partnership that has stood the test of time. On April 28, after fifty-five years of bilateral defense cooperation, the United States and Japan agreed to revise their defense guidelines to further integrate military operations and cooperation on activities ranging from peacekeeping to intelligence collection.

From China’s perspective, rather than demonstrating the power of reconciliation, the revision of the U.S.-Japan defense guidelines “is a worry for all nations with direct experience of these countries’ previous overseas military escapades.” Once seen as a valued restraint that checked Japan’s ambitions for regional hegemony, the U.S.-Japan alliance is now viewed as a threat. Chinese president Xi Jinping has gone beyond mere calls, such as were made by his predecessor, for the elimination of such alliances in the Asia-Pacific to propose the establishment of a new regional security architecture that transcends “the outdated thinking from the age of Cold War and zero-sum game.”

In the 1970s and 1980s, when China faced a military threat from the Soviet Union, the Chinese viewed the U.S.-Japan alliance as on balance, beneficial to their interests. Though Chinese public perception of Japan and its intentions fluctuated throughout the Cold War, the United States continued to function as the “cork in the bottle” that prevented Japan from remilitarizing and helped to underwrite peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific. That assessment changed drastically in the mid-1990s after a series of events strained Sino-Japanese relations, including Japan’s cancellation of part of its Official Development Assistance (ODA) to China following China’s 1995 nuclear tests, China’s 1996 military exercises near Taiwan, and the U.S.-Japan decision in 1996 to revise defense guidelines, which would subsequently allow Japan to assist the United States in a Korean Peninsula or Taiwan Strait contingency. Liu Jiangyong, a leading Chinese expert on Japan who is now at Qinghua University, cautioned in 1997 in an article published in Contemporary International Relations that the alliance was no longer a cork in Japan’s military bottle, but instead was an “eggshell for Japan to develop its conventional high-tech military strength.”

At an ASEAN Regional Forum meeting on confidence building in Beijing in March 1997, Chinese foreign minister Qian Qichen introduced China’s “New Security Concept.” This concept, outlined in a 1997 People’s Daily article and later dubbed the “Four Nos,” called for the abandonment of Cold War–era conduct: hegemonism; power politics; military alliances and arms races. Entreaties for the United States to forsake its Cold War alliance mentality and seek lasting peace through China’s “New Security Concept” have persisted in official Chinese speeches with varying degrees of vigor ever since.

In China, the U.S.-Japan alliance, its staying power and its strategic objectives have long been the subject of lively debate. The alliance is most often framed in two distinct ways: (1) Japan is using the alliance as a guise to conceal ulterior motives; or (2) the United States is using the alliance as a facade to contain China. On both sides of this debate, Chinese analysts differ about what drives each country’s behavior within the alliance, but agree with the assessment made by Chinese writer Si Chu that, “the U.S.-Japan alliance has always been a relationship of using and being used, and of controlling and being controlled.”