Do not be put off by the sensationalist title. This is a solid geopolitical and economic study of power in the Pacific during the 20th century. Basing their prophesy on the record, George Friedman and Meredith Lebard conclude that a second U.S.-Japanese war is highly probable in the early 21st century. The authors do not attempt to predict the details of such a war. Instead, they concentrate on the permanent factors that have put Washington and Tokyo on a collision course and write from the clear, cool perspective of realpolitik. Their book is divided into three parts of equal length: a history of U.S.-Japanese relations, a survey of the current situation, and a discussion of various alternative futures.

To many observers, the Japanese seem to be unstoppable. However, Friedman and Lebard argue that the threat of war comes not from Japan’s apparent strength but from its fundamental weakness. Japan may have the world’s second largest economy, but

that economy is located on a series of islands too small to sustain it. If the Japanese economy is to compete with vast entities such as the United States and Europe, it must secure markets and resources that are readily at hand as have the other two. Japan has to go quite a distance before it can secure either markets or resources, and it must do so through waters controlled by the world’s greatest economic power, Japan’s old and dangerous nemesis, the United States.

This is the geostrategic problem that has always faced Japan, which must either create an empire or remain a vassal of the United States, subject to increasing economic pressure. Though its first bid for empire ended in 1945, Japan was resurrected from that defeat by a new war—the Cold War—during which the United States needed Japan as an ally against the Soviet Union. The United States paid a high price for this alliance, granting Japan an access to its markets that mined a number of American companies and undermined the nation’s industrial base. Now that the Cold War is over, there is no reason for America to continue to pay this price.

Friedman and Lebard repeatedly make the point that the appeal of free trade is gone:

The end of the Cold War may well signal the end of the free-trade era and a cyclical return to segmented markets. In such a segmented and regionalized world, economic well-being will rest with those who hold political and military power. . . . The ability to close off one’s markets to competitors might well bring great economic benefit, or at least social peace.

Since the United States is the only true superpower in the wake of economic collapse and ethnic strife in the Soviet Union, it is in a position to benefit from the return of “normal” power politics and mercantilism:

The power of the U.S. to impose tolls on trade and punish traders that cut into U.S. markets is a starkly real power. . . . It is utterly inconceivable that the United States will not use its vast naval power to try to gain economic advantage.

Tokyo must look to the future with trepidation. Japan imports 99 percent of its oil, and in 1988 imported 93 percent of all the nickel, 57 percent of all the copper, and 30 percent of all the coal and iron available on the world market. Exports account for 15 percent of Japan’s GNP and half its annual economic growth. On average, every merchant ship in the world must visit Japan 1.3 times a year to carry its trade. And the situation will only get worse.

The United States has demanded that Japan shift from exports to domestic development, but Friedman and Lebard argue that this will not work. Increasing domestic demand will not lessen the need for raw material imports, thus making exports necessary to cover the cost. Japan also has a severe labor shortage that requires the use of foreign workers. And as an economically mature nation, Japan is finding that its large capital surplus is attracted to foreign investments. While this money is going mainly to buy real estate, securities, and banks in America and Europe, it is also being used to develop mines, oil fields, farmland, and basic industry in Asia and Latin America.

One-third of Japan’s exports go to the United States. As the creator of the world’s most open market, Japanese business has been quick to exploit this golden opportunity. But Tokyo knows that these days are numbered as political resentment grows. With Europe moving towards economic union in 1992 and the United States negotiating a North American trading zone, Japan is seeking its own economic preserve, a new version of the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, only its horizons will extend farther this time.

Three countries loom large in this plan: Indonesia, which offers Japan labor, raw materials (including oil), and a key to the Malacca Strait; India, which has a large potential market and is already a major source of raw materials; and the Philippines, the cornerstone of America’s military establishment in Asia. New Delhi wants to control the Indian Ocean, and Japanese technology could help India build a navy and air force to do it. An Indian fleet might be a better safeguard for Japanese oil shipments from the Persian Gulf than the U.S. Navy, if the trade war heats up. And if the United States were forced out of its bases in the Philippines, it would be very difficult for Washington to project its power into the western Pacific in the face of Japanese hostility. It can be expected that increasingly Japanese influence in the Philippines will be used to support those who favor such an American expulsion.

To protect this maritime empire, Japan will have to seek naval supremacy in the Pacific. Tokyo could not depend on economic influence alone to control such a large, varied, and unstable area; as the authors note, “being rich and quite weak is normally an invitation for catastrophe.” Japan has the industrial and technological means to pursue such a plan of supremacy.

The United States has taken out the wrong parts of the Cold War apparatus. Washington has been cutting back elements of its own strength, rather than of the strength of others. Nothing could be more dangerous, than continued American pressure on Japan to increase its navy, and to play a larger role in world affairs. With the waning of the Soviet threat, the United States no longer has an interest in a stronger and more active Japan.

The way for a country to deter war is to become so strong that no one dares to challenge it. For a powerful America to regain economic preeminence, it may be necessary to continue to make Japan pay tribute to Washington by supporting policies that are not in Tokyo’s interests, as in the case of the Gulf War. The most important thing is to keep the balance of power tilted towards America.

Japan has always wanted to dominate the Pacific and thus to control its own destiny, but it discovered in 1945 that the price for such ambition could be prohibitive. Japan underestimated American resolve in 1941. Washington should never again allow Tokyo to believe it can successfully move against American interests.


[The Coming War with Japan, by George Friedman and Meredith Lebard (New York: St. Martin’s Press) 429 pp., $24.95]