The U.S.-Japan Bilateral Relationship: Times of Uncertainty Demand Good Friends

The U.S.-Japan Bilateral Relationship: Times of Uncertainty Demand Good Friends

By: Diana H. Newton, Tower Center Senior Fellow and Collin Powell Teaching Fellow

Diana Newton presenting on panel on U.S.-Japan relations

In Tokyo this past summer, SMU’s John G. Tower Center for Public Policy and International Affairs hosted one of its renowned Sun & Star Symposia focused on Japan and East Asia. Even though we kicked off as a typhoon battered the Japanese islands, the deluge did not dampen the dynamism of the conference. Titled “U.S.-Japan Relations in this Post-Pandemic Uncertain World,” the conference highlighted the fact that U.S.-Japan relations matter more than ever in these tumultuous times. Events like the SMU Tower Center Symposium sponsored by the Center’s Sun & Star Program on Japan and East Asia further enrich this long-standing bilateral relationship that is essential to both nations.

Ambassador Ron Kirk and Ambassador Tom Schieffer

At Keio University in a conference facility in downtown Tokyo, thought-leaders, policy makers, and Japanese and American scholars gathered. Former U.S. Trade Representative, Ambassador Ron Kirk, spoke about the importance of international trade in the bilateral and multilateral context, and former U.S. Ambassador to Australia and Japan, Mr. Tom Schieffer, delved into the bilateral relationship and the complexities of the region, explaining the important role U.S. diplomacy can play. These keynote addresses were supplemented by panel discussions on the future of the bilateral relationship; the implications of trade agreements on Japan, the U.S. and Mexico; and collaborative R&D and innovation that is essential to the future of U.S.-Japan relations.

As discussed at the symposium, while on firm footing, the bilateral relationship suffers the buffeting winds of several current challenges, including but not limited to China’s saber-rattling and wolf-warrior diplomacy; North Korea’s unceasing missile testing and alliance-building with Russia; Russia’s illegitimate invasion of Ukraine; and last but not least, deep domestic divides fueling dysfunctional strategy and policy making in the United States. These negative inputs are offset by some positive ones, however, such as the U.S.-Japan-South Korea summit that President Biden recently hosted at Camp David; the positive and productive relationship that exists between President Biden and Prime Minister Kishida; and perhaps most importantly the significant leadership roles that Japan has recently espoused. As the U.S. has looked inward, Japan has looked outward, playing an important role as a supporting partner to ASEAN, the champion of the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) and Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), G-7 host extraordinaire, and perhaps most importantly, reliable defense partner, promising to raise Japan’s defense spending and considering a unified command structure for U.S. and Japanese forces.

For many years, the U.S. was seen as the senior partner, the provider of markets and capital, and most importantly the provider of security to a nation without a standing military during the height of the Cold War. As we move beyond the unipolar moment into a post-Cold War world, tensions have ratcheted upward, and polarizations abound across the globe. Institutional norms have come under attack, and social media has driven actions and reactions in ways never experienced. But in difficult times, true friendship is more important than ever, and Japan, the first among equals, has been a good friend to the United States for a long time. Given the current American political situation clouding the question of whether the U.S. will show up around the globe, the Sun & Star Symposium showed that Japan has exuded leadership and reliability for both nations. Through upheavals and evolutions, this almost eighty-year friendship remains essential not only to the U.S. and Japan, but also for the whole world.