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Washington’s old ‘Japan problem’ and the current ‘China threat’

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The label reading ‘Made in China’ on a sweatshirt is seen over another shirt with a US flag at a souvenir stand in Boston, Massachusetts, 18 January 2011 (Photo: Reuters/Brian Synder/File Photo).

In Brief

In April 2019, Kiron Skinner — former director of policy planning at the US State Department — described Washington’s new China strategy as built on the understanding that the current clash with Beijing ‘is a fight with a different civilization and a different ideology and the United States hasn’t had that before’. With China, Skinner proposes that ‘it’s the first time that [the United States] will have a great power competitor that is not Caucasian’. Her comments were widely interpreted as referring to Samuel Huntington’s ‘Clash of Civilizations’.


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Skinner’s remarks have been widely criticised for being deeply flawed, as well as historically inaccurate. Earlier ideological or ‘non-Caucasian’ competitors named by critics include Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. But there is a more recent example of rising power competition involving official public discourse aimed at labelling the opposition ‘others’ as essentially different and because of that difference requiring of the United States a more confrontational approach: the so-called Japan Problem of the 1980s and 1990s. It bears striking similarities to the current hardening of US discourse on China and the alleged (newfound) certainty that China will not become more like the United States.

After the Second World War, Japan’s rapid transformation from enemy to close US ally and then to economic powerhouse was celebrated. Japan was quickly acknowledged as one of the Western, developed economies of the OECD world and very much part of the liberal democratic capitalist order championed by the United States.

This changed when the economic relationship between the United States and Japan became a source of competition. From 1982, Japan became the largest deficit trading partner of the United States and in 1985 its biggest creditor. The growing trade deficit and indebtedness on the US side triggered a debate about Japan’s ability to economically outcompete the United States.

In Washington, explanations emerged that Japan was more different to West — in terms of deviating from the principles of free trade and market capitalism — than previously assumed. New labels such as ‘developmental state’ and ‘comparative capitalism’ were created to re-define Japan in relation to existing economic theory.

Japan’s difference was additionally explained through starkly contrasting depictions of its culture and society. Samuel Huntington, for example, comparing Japan to the United States wrote in 1991 that ‘the one stresses collectivity, consensus, authority, hierarchy, discipline; the other individualism, competition, dissent, egalitarianism, unbridled self-interest … One fixes on the long haul and saves and invests; the other focuses on the short term and spends and consumes’.

As US pressure — applied through tariffs, negotiations, different initiatives and frameworks — was not successful in substantially reducing the trade deficit, Japan’s commitment to the liberal order in general and to the US–Japan alliance in particular was questioned. Rising Japan was not only considered a threat to US economic pre-eminence, but it was believed to be promoting a ‘Pax Nipponica’, a neo-mercantilist order.

The Japanese economy came to be seen as ‘different, closed and threatening’. References to Japanese ‘unfairness’, ‘cheating’ and ‘economic warfare’ became widespread; a New York Times poll in the late 1980s and early 1990s found that the US public considered Japan’s economy to be a greater threat than the Soviet Union’s military. Japan had replaced the Soviet Union as the ‘exotic Other’. The so-called revisionists who became influential during the first Clinton administration argued that Japan was ‘fundamentally different’ and that dealing with Japan required a more confrontational approach than the rulebook of liberal democratic capitalism would ordinarily allow.

In practice, this ‘results-oriented’ strategy proved to be unsuccessful. It was quietly buried when the Japanese economy and trade deficit declined substantially in the mid to late 1990s (and as the US deficit declined and attention started shifting to a rising China).

The whole episode marked the most bitter clash between the United States and Japan in the post-war period, with the potential of undermining the conceptual basis of their relations. While bigger spillovers affecting the security relationship were prevented, ‘hegemonic war’ between the United States and Japan had been considered a possibility.

In US–China relations today, both the economic and security realms are areas of frictions, which makes the current overall tendency among US government agencies to securitise China even more problematic. The US National Security Strategy labels China a ‘revisionist power’. The US Federal Bureau of Investigation director Christopher Wray labelled China as a ‘whole-of-society threat’. The right-wing lobby group Committee on the Present Danger has been re-invigorated to defend Western values from China’s growing power.

These developments are dangerous due to the risk they pose of instigating a self-fulfilling prophecy, but also for US society as pointed out by Susan Shirk.

In 2019, China not only plays in a different league militarily than Japan did previously, but the United States and China also lack the alliance and security ties that ensured that the kind of mistrust created by US–Japan trade disputes in the past could be dealt with. With its trade war, the Trump administration is additionally undermining potentially conflict-constraining economic interdependencies.

Given the potential fallout from turning China into the new ‘exotic Other’, it is important to remember how the ‘economic threat’ posed by Japan became an argument within US circles about cultural incompatibility that called for only one approach: confrontation.

Nicola Nymalm is Research Fellow with the Asia and Global Politics and Security programmes at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs.

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