The economics of identity: is China the new ‘Japan problem’ for the United States?

  • Nicola NymalmEmail author
Original Article


The ‘rise of China’ ranks among the most widely addressed contemporary topics in the field of International Relations. The majority of studies focuses on questions of ‘power shifts’ from West to East—in particular from the US to China—commonly premised on assessments of China’s rapid economic growth. However, it is rarely taken into consideration that the last comparable debate was conducted only a few decades ago, when Japan was proclaimed the new ‘Number One’. The neglect is even more remarkable given the striking similarities in the US discourses on first Japan and then China as not only an ‘unfair economic player’, but also a ‘threat’ to US global preeminence. In turn, the similarities seem puzzling given the differences in the bilateral relationship between the US and Japan in the past, and the US and China more recently. This article analyses parallels in these discourses by taking a view that goes beyond the economy as material capabilities and interests common in research on ‘rising powers’. Instead, focusing on the role of identity, it contends that the similarities in articulating Japan and China as threats stem from them not adhering to the US model of liberal democratic capitalism, while being economically successful on their own terms.


China Discourse Identity Japan Power shifts US 



Earlier versions of this article were presented at the American Political Science Association’s (APSA) annual meeting in San Francisco in September 2015 and the Swedish Political Science Association’s (SWEPSA) annual conference at the Swedish Defence University in Stockholm in October 2015. I am grateful for the comments and feedback received on both occasions, as well as later on from Stefan Borg, Steve Chan, Karl Gustafsson, Linus Hagström, Astrid Nordin, Stefanie Ortmann, and Oliver Turner. My gratitude also extends to the three anonymous reviewers for JIRD, while all shortcomings remain my sole responsibility. The article builds on my PhD dissertation From ‘Japan problem’ to ‘China threat’? Dissecting the Economic Discourses on Japan (19801995) and China (19952008) in the United States Congress (2015, Kiel University) for which I received funding from the Finnish Cultural Foundation (SKR).


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.The Swedish Institute of International Affairs (UI)StockholmSweden

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