Benefits and Burdens: The Politically Dominated Economics of U.S. Alliances with Japan and Korea

Alliances are organizations between or among independent entities that concert to produce “collective goods” for the mutual benefit of alliance members. The statement applies whether the alliances are between or among countries, corporations, universities, research centers, or other institutions. Of course, the nature of the collective goods, as well as the membership in the collectivity, differs across these cases. That the goods (or benefits) are“collective” means that their availability to one alliance member (or their production by any member) implies their availability to the other members of the alliance.

Because the beneficiaries of collective goods cannot readily be excluded from access to
them, the so-called “free rider” problem arises. As a result, “Let George do it” becomes the
prevalent incentive structure. The more George does, the less is the burden (i.e., “cost”) on
other alliance members, while the benefits are collectively available to all members.

Several corollaries follow with respect to the formation, functioning, and prospects of
alliances in general, and those in Northeast Asia in particular:

First, while the benefits of an alliance are available to all its members, their respective
valuations of these collective benefits may differ. It is also worth noting that non-alliance members—for example, China—may appraise the putative alliance products as representing
not benefits, but “dis-benefits” (threats or risks) for themselves.

Second, devising an appropriate formula for sharing the costs of producing the collective
alliance benefits is complicated by the aforementioned differences in valuations among
alliance members, as well as differences in their capacity and willingness to pay.

This paper addresses the general question of the collective burdens (costs) and benefits of
the U.S. alliances with Japan and Korea, as well as the respective capacities and willingness
of the alliance members to bear these burdens. The economics of these issues are inextricably linked with their politics, and so crisscrossing between these two domains occurs frequently in the paper.

The paper is divided into five sections. Section 2 addresses the economic capacities of the
alliance members to bear alliance costs. Section 3 deals with the costs—both economic and
non-economic—of each of the alliances. Section 4 assesses the security and other benefits of the alliances. Section 5 considers the politically dominated “willingness” of the alliance
members to bear alliance burdens. And Section 6 provides a concluding assessment of the
balance between the burdens and benefits of the two alliances, the interdependencies
between the two alliances, and ways of enhancing the alliances while mitigating the
drawbacks associated with what we refer to as the “China–Japan conundrum.”

Published as part of the "America's Alliances with Japan and Korea in a Changing Northeast Asia" Research Project.