Are the US and China heading for a Pearl Harbor moment?
Back to the Future? Pearl Harbor, 1941
Before visiting Shanghai last summer, I decided to prepare myself through some old novels about pre-Communist Shanghai, to remind myself of a city that was once a foreign colonial playground but is now a burgeoning economic powerhouse and emblem of China’s progress.
One of the books was a novel called “Shanghai,” by the Japanese author Yokomitsu Riichi. The plot which involved a star-crossed Japanese lover’s adventures in strife-torn, 1925 Shanghai. But through it all, Riichi provides a view of Japan’s sense of itself back then: As the English-language translator of the volume said, Riichi’s, “Was the first generation to grow up in a Japan that saw itself not simply as modernizing, but as modern.” And, I would add, ready to make its weight felt and earn the benefits of being a world power.
It’s seems to me Japan’s view of itself then applies to 21st Century China, especially under the management under President Xi Jinping.
So what does that have to do with Pearl Harbor? The basics for US-China conflict have one basic thing in common with US-Japan relations, pre-World War II. Japan was taking on colonial power Great Britain and its sidekick, the US, which had already made a global splash by intervening in World War I. Now, there’s a rivalry between budding, self-confident Asian power–China– and a dominant one, the US. How it will play out is another matter, but one of increasing concern, if history is a. guide.
Japan in the 1920s and 30s saw itself as a superior culture detained to lead Asai out of the shadow and control of Western powers. It considered its Western rivals as decadent and weak.
Japan after World War I wanted to secure natural resources throughout East Asia to bolster a flagging economy. It embarked on a long military campaign to eliminate potential rivals from the region: its invasion of Manchuria in 1931 was aimed at exploiting natural resources, especially minerals, and keeping the Soviet Union of Stalin at bay; Ten years later, Japan invaded Indochina, attacked Pearl Harbor, occupied Hong Kong and Thailand and moved through Malaya on its way to taking Singapore.
The latter assaults meant to eliminate Great Britain from East Asia, knock the US out of the Western Pacific and secure its economically dominant Co-Prosperity Sphere in the region. It was done both in the name of Japanese hegemony and a sort of Asia-for-the-Asians ideology.
China, too, considers its main rival, the US, in decline. Under Xi, China is gradually spreading its military wings. It has expanded its sea barriers by putting bases on contested reefs in the South China Sea and challenged Japan’s hold on the Senkaku Islands. It has held naval exercises around and beyond Taiwan, a latent threat to commercial and military access to the island. It has developed an arsenal of medium range nuclear tipped missiles capable of hitting US Pacific Ocean naval stations.
Further afield, China has begun to string together naval bases to secure its access to trade and natural resources across the Indian Ocean. Under agreements with various countries, it controls naval bases as far west as the mouth of the Persian Gulf and Red Sea. This has made China, for the first time in its history, a two-ocean country.
Xi’s ideology is less pan-Asian than pan-global, pitting Chinese leadership against a Western-dominated world it considers defunct. Its Co-Prosperity is a worldwide Belt and Road project.
The US responded to Japanese military expansion slowly. It was not until 1939 that the Roosevelt Administration cut off trade and embargoed fuel sales to Japan. The next year, the administration moved its Pacific naval fleet from Long Beach, California, to Hawaii, presumably as a deterrent. It turned out to be an invitation for the Japanese to deliver the blow to the US Pacific fleet.
Trump’s responses to China’s displays of power and influence have been gradual but also striking. He has challenged China’s coastal seas strategy by sending warships within the bounds China has set in the South China Sea. China’s deployment of nuclear-armed intermediate range missiles also concerns Washington and is the basis for the US desire to break a treaty ban on such weapons with Russia, which is also now deploying them. China is not a signatory of the treaty.
Trump has also begun to pressure China on trade—not in response to any Chinese military move, but on the grounds of what he calls “unfair” economic practices and alleged Chinese “theft” of US technology.
In a recent bellicose speech, Vice President Mike Pence drew a connection between China’s economic tactics and military moves. “China has chosen economic aggression, which has in turn emboldened its growing military,” he said.
In short, while vastly different in degree compared to the run up to World War II, the basics for conflict in this century are in place. What would a Pearl Harbor moment look like? Maybe a decision of China to isolate Taiwan. Or a simple trading of fire on the South China Sea. Let’s hope not.
In any event, there may be a weakness on the American side that was not present on the eve of World War II. A significant portion of the US establishment considers Trump an illegitimate president. That may make more forceful response to China more difficult than the ones eventually imposed on Japan by Roosevelt, who did not face a challenge to his fitness for office. .
Trump’s National Security Advisor John Bolton warns China.