In a disturbing parallel, China this year seems to have started down the same warpath that led Japan to attack the US at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.
The emergence of this similarity has not gone unnoticed. A Washington think tank, for instance, has suggested that China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has devised a strategy that “mimics the Japanese Imperial strategy of 1941-1942.”
The Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA), whose researchers have working ties with the Pentagon, has even speculated on possible Chinese targets — US air bases on Guam in the central Pacific, Kadena on Okinawa and Misawa in northeastern Japan.
Just as Japan sought to knock out the US fleet based at Pearl Harbor, so “the PLA’s objective would be to deny US forces the ability to generate substantial combat power from its air bases in the Western Pacific.”
The think tank says researchers based their findings on extensive PLA writings.
The evident similarities between the China of today and the Japan of yesteryear are striking:
‧ The highly nationalistic PLA has become increasingly independent of the Chinese Communist Party. Like the Japanese Imperial Army, the PLA has struck off on its own foreign and military policy even as it pledges loyalty to the party in the same way the Japanese Imperial Army pledged loyalty to the emperor.
‧ The objective of the PLA is to drive US forces and interests out of East Asia, just as the Japanese intended to drive the French, British, Dutch, Portuguese and US colonialists from Asia. (Even though Japan was defeated in 1945, the European and US colonies in Asia became independent.)
‧ Japan intended to impose its own colonial rule in Asia under the guise of the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. China today appears to be reviving the ancient concept of the Middle Kingdom in which the nations surrounding China become vassal states and the rest are outer barbarians.
‧ The Japanese saw themselves as the rightful rulers of Asia, but tried to persuade other Asians that they came as protectors, not as masters. The Chinese have taken somewhat the same stance, asserting that as a “big country” they are only seeking to protect Asian nations from outside exploitation.
‧ In a specific instance, a Chinese admiral proposed several years ago to then--commander of US forces in the Pacific, Admiral Timothy Keating, that the US withdraw to Hawaii and the eastern Pacific, while Chinese warships patrolled the western Pacific, much as the Japanese proposed 1941. Keating and his predecessors demurred.
‧ Japan and China have claimed the South China Sea as sovereign waters as each sought to control the waterway through which resources such as oil and ores flowed to their home economies. Japan turned Hainan Island into a logistics base while Chinese have built naval and air bases there.
‧ According to the historian Herbert Feis, Japanese Admiral Kichisaburo Nomura was sent to Washington in early 1941 “to persuade the US government to accede to what Japan was doing.”
The Chinese, in their appeals to the US to accept Beijing’s view of Asia and the Pacific, have demanded much the same.
‧ Modern Chinese and Japanese strategists have adopted the teaching of Sun Tzu (孫子), the Chinese strategic thinker who wrote 2500 years ago that “to subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill.”
The Japanese in 1941 sought to overcome the US without a fight. Chinese leaders today have indicated they hope to do the same.
‧ If that strategy failed, the Japanese planned to march through Southeast Asia and sail into the Pacific islands, then sue for peace as they thought the US had no will for a long fight. China, after pre-emptive strikes, would assume a defensive stance, CSBA said, “until the US determines that it would be too costly to undo” a fait accompli.
The vital question today is whether, having failed to dissuade the Japanese from aggression in 1941, the US can persuade the Chinese that trying to drive the US from Asia without force will not work.
The ultimate question is whether the Chinese can be dissuaded from a miscalculation that would cause a catastrophic war.
Richard Halloran is a commentator based in Hawaii.
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