Analysis: China, Not Japan Confronts US

By MARTIN SIEFF, UPI Senior News Analyst  |  Dec. 9, 2001 at 3:44 PM
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WASHINGTON, Dec. 9 (UPI) -- It is always a mistake to look to the last war as guide on how to fight the next one. History never repeats itself. Very often, things become the reverse of what they were before.

The 60th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor being remembered this weekend may be a good time to reflect on how many developments have reversed themselves in Asia and the world since then.

The memory of impoverished, overpopulated Imperial Japan, hungrily plotting to seize a rich colonial empire for itself in Asia three generations ago is such a powerful one that it still shapes the strategic thinking of major world powers to this day.

The most notable example is China, which last week released a strategic studies paper that put fear of a reawakening of Japanese militarism and aggression as a major reason for its own immense military build-up.

But nothing could be further from the truth. Instead, as 2002 dawns, a wealthy, satisfied Japan -- still the second largest industrial economy on earth -- continues to generate a comfortable and rising standard of living for its 120 million people, even after a decade-year long economic recession.

Japan is not a nation seeking conquest or aggrandizement. It has one of the lowest birth rates of all the major industrialized nations and an exceptional number of one-child families. It is a nation filled with doting parents who would be appalled at the thought of their precious only sons being conscripted to fight wars of conquest or intervention anywhere beyond the cozy home islands.

Moreover it has pacifist constitution, which prohibits any kind of military aggression by its small armed forces.

By contrast, it is mighty China, with 1.2 billion people and fast rising population that has the demographic surplus and imperative to militarily expand in its neighborhood.

The Chinese economy has sustained the highest rate of growth of any major power for a longer period of time than any other in the world. But now, it is faltering and a major economic recession has caused unemployment to soar to more than 100 million.

In this respect, it is China that is already analogous to the Japan of the 1930s whose fast growing economic growth in the Meiji era and in the 1920s was disastrously disrupted by the global Great Depression after 1931.

Like Japan in the 1930s, China has a huge population growth with scores of millions of large families and a growing sense of intense nationalism.

Like Japan in the 1930s, there is already a burning popular grassroots resentment at the thought that the dominant superpower of the world -- the British Empire in the 1930s and the United States of America today -- is keeping the nation's hungry millions from enjoying their just share of the earth's resources.

And as in 1930s Japan, China today has a prestigious and ambitious military leadership fertile in planning scenarios for future wars to right its leaders regard as bitterly unjust old wrongs.

Gen. Hidechi Tojo emerged from the morass of Japanese army officers' plots and intrigues of the 1930s to serve as the "War Shogun" who led Japan into global war against the West on Dec. 7, 1941.

In China, Vice President Hu Jintao, the most likely successor to current President Jiang Zemin, looks the most likely figure to play that role. Hu already heads the Communist Party's Central Military Commission -- the nearest thing the People's Liberation Army has to its own political and strategic leadership.

He is expected to take over key leadership of major functions of state from President Jiang over the next two or three years.

In 1940-41, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his Assistant Secretary of State Dean Acheson carelessly put the United States on a collision course for total war with Japan. The turning point came in 1941 when Acheson pushed through -- and Roosevelt approved -- a measure to freeze all Japanese purchases of strategic products from the United States.

This meant Japan could no longer buy oil from the United States, which was the largest producer in the world at that time from its mighty Texas wells.

The move was taken to try and stop the increasing rhythm of Japanese military conquest in China and the former French colonies of what was then called Indochina -- today, Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.

But in order to preserve almost half a century of overseas colonial expansion since their successful war with China in 1895, Japan's political and military leaders agreed instead on the daring gamble of a preemptive military strike against the U.S. Pacific Fleet at its home base of Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

A similarly ill-received move today might come from either the executive branch of the U.S. government -- as it did in 1941 -- or from the legislative branch.

If it came from the administration, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz might play the hawkish role that Acheson did 60 years ago. He is the figure in the Bush administration who has taken by far the toughest and most outspoken line on China.

Or Congress, angry at aggressive Chinese rhetoric and actions, could move to cut off, suspend or just abolish the Permanent Normal Trade Relations status that President Clinton so arduously pushed through. Such a move, like the suspension of strategic raw materials sales to Japan in 1941, could set both countries on a collision course for full-scale war.

In the 21st century, the issue that could propel a United States already stretched in its struggle against international terrorism into an unexpected war in East Asia is not Japanese aggression against China, but China's threats to reincorporate the offshore island of Taiwan, historically always a part of China but either ruled by Japan from 1895 to 1945 or effectively independent under U.S. protection since 1949.

Again, hostilities might start involving the U.S. Navy in the Pacific. But instead of a surprise Japanese attack upon the battleships of the U.S. Pacific Fleet in their homeport as on Dec. 7, 1941, it would more likely involve the aircraft carrier battle groups of the U.S. Seventh Fleet sailing to support Taiwan against a Chinese invasion of the island.

The U.S. government and its military leaders appallingly underestimated the technological advancement and high tech prowess of Japan's armed forces and their men in December 1941.

It is likely that U.S. political leaders and the U.S. Congress today grossly underestimate the sea and air capabilities of a China that has been rapidly building up air fleets of Sukhoi Su-30s and state of the art, carrier-killing Soveremenny-class destroyers, both purchased from Russia.

The Pacific War that resulted from the collision of American and Japanese wills over China in December 1941 resulted in an appalling bloodbath that cost more than 200,000 American lives and millions of Japanese ones.

A U.S.-China war fought primarily over Taiwan could be on an even greater scale if wise heads do not prevail on both sides.

The best ways for avoiding such disastrous miscalculations on either side are profitable subjects to dwell on this latest anniversary of the events at Pearl Harbor 60 years ago.

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