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Why Japan Is America's New No. 1 Ally (And May Not Want The Honor)

Asia has become the new center of the world because of China's growing power, which in Washington's eyes has turned Japan from an important ally to the most important. But is Tokyo ready for the newfound responsibility?

Why Japan Is America's New No. 1 Ally (And May Not Want The Honor)

U.S. and Japanese Navy Ships in Joint Operations

Dominique Moïsi


PARIS — "Who's the No. 1 ally of the United States in the world?" For a long time after World War II, the answer to this question was obvious: Britain. The United Kingdom envisioned itself as the would-be Athens to the new Rome.

The special relationship that existed between London and Washington after the War was unique. Indeed, it irritated the likes of France's Charles de Gaulle: How could one trust a country, which was certainly geographically and culturally European, but which, between the continent and the open ocean, would always choose the latter?

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War, it has been more difficult to identify America's preferred ally. Several countries, depending on the American presidency, have claimed this status, or at least have given the title to themselves. Recently, Angela Merkel's Germany — a serious chancellor leading a serious country — was trusted by Barack Obama. Israel and Saudi Arabia (where the newly elected Donald Trump made his first official trip) both claimed to be Washington's best ally the past four years. Today, instead, America has a new "favorite."

Priority to the Indo-Pacific region 

During a recent visit to Paris, a senior American diplomat said there was no longer any doubt — America's ally of choice in the world is now Japan. Wasn't the Japanese prime minister the first visitor to be received at the White House after Joe Biden took office? That was also shortly followed by the South Korean president — two Asian visitors, confirmation of the clear priority given to the Indo-Pacific zone by an America that quite evidently intends to remain global.

But beyond this geographical criterion, the choice of Japan is not a coincidence. India may well be the world's largest democracy in terms of population, but its democratic practice is leaving more and more to be desired. While Donald Trump and Narendra Modi may have been united in their respective populism. Joe Biden, instead, belongs to a generation for whom Japan has long been the center of Asia. And above all, while he may be culturally Atlanticist, he is strategically "Asian."

To be designated, even unofficially, as America's "No. 1 ally" is first of all, for Tokyo, a form of revenge on its recent history. But it is also a responsibility that could lead it to question its traditional choices.

Korean soft power

The 1964 Tokyo Olympics marked Japan's return to the community of prosperous and democratic nations. The Asian economic miracle was first and foremost Japanese. This was at least until China — also taking advantage of Japan's entry into a structural crisis (financial and identity) from 1985 onwards — gradually replaced the "Empire of the Rising Sun" as the embodiment of the Asian miracle.

In the early 2000s, Japan added to the loss of its economic standing that of its diplomatic status. As for India, orphaned by the USSR, it saw in its spectacular rapprochement with Washington's response to the rise of China.

But could these restrictions disappear with time?

Finally, on the cultural level, Japan is increasingly confronted with the soft power of South Korea. From the Palme d'Or awarded to the film Parasite in Cannes to the phenomenal success of the series Squid Games on Netflix, Seoul is more than just a shadow of Tokyo.

But in 2021, Japan owes its return to international prominence, in the eyes of Washington, to the challenge coming from China. Of course, Tokyo has not been invited to join the trilateral Aukus alliance (U.S., UK and Australia) that so angered France and others excluded from the agreement. And even if NATO is now expanding its missions to include the "containment" of China, there is no possibility of the Atlantic organization opening up directly to new members from the Pacific zone.

But could these restrictions disappear with time? Or even give way to the institutionalization of an "alliance of democracies" that would confirm Japan's status as the United States' top partner?

photo of joe biden listening at a summit

Biden Hosts a Quad Leaders Summit

Sarahbeth Maney/CNP via ZUMA Press Wire

In the front row of the Chinese theater 

In fact, Japan ticks many boxes in the eyes of Washington. It has a stable democratic system, despite its noted cumbersome and sometimes paralyzing nature. As the world's third largest economy, after the United States and China, Japan has an undeniable status as a global power, and this at a time when it is becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish between geoeconomics and geopolitics.

And, of course, Japan has the right geography, in the front row of the new global theater, as close as possible to the new threat to the world: China.

Not all Japanese are happy about this unofficial "promotion." Some even worry about the consequences of this new status. As the number of remaining survivors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings naturally diminishes with time, might Japan be tempted to end the taboo of nuclear weapons to strengthen its deterrent capability against China? We are still a long long way from that.

Japan has the right geography.

The government of new Prime Minister Fumio Kishida — who must first survive the October 31 general election — clearly has other priorities that are domestic. Ironically, they seem to respond to the debate highlighted in "Squid Game": faced with the explosion of inequalities between the richest and the poorest, what can be done to promote a more equal redistribution of income?

Japan is used to dealing with the ravages of nature with solidarity and resilience. But in the face of the geopolitical earthquake that is China's irresistible rise to power and the new status that Washington has just conferred on it, Japan could somehow evoke the European Union. While it is not running away, it is also in no apparent rush to assume its new responsibilities for regional and global security.

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