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

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).

Author: Nicola Nymalm, Swedish Institute of International Affairs

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‘.

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 …continue reading