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Asian Foreign Policy May Be Doomed To Repeat History

by Jeff Cox, published
USS Enterprise at Supic Bay // Credit: Dual Freq via Wikimedia Commons

USS Enterprise at Supic Bay // Credit: Dual Freq via Wikimedia Commons

The 20th Century began with a rising power in Asia whose nakedly expansionist aspirations and increasing belligerence produced dark clouds over East Asia and winds that reached across the globe. So has the 21st Century.

In 1901, Japan was still in the convulsions of the “Meiji Restoration,” by which in the aftermath of Japan being forcibly opened up to the world by the 1853 visit by US Commodore Matthew Perry, this land of Amaterasu the Sun Goddess was rapidly modernizing itself. But it was a veneer of modernization covering, unbeknownst to westerners, an arrogant and often de-humanizing set of ancient values, with, also unbeknownst to westerners, a dark, publicly-unstated goal of making sure nothing like Perry’s visit ever happened again. Hakko ichiu – roughly translated as “bringing the 8 corners of the world under one roof – became the basis for Imperial Japan’s defense and foreign policy, veiled at first, but openly in the 1930s.

But to start, in the 1890s, Japan started nibbling away at a weakened China, picking up Korea and Taiwan. They had also picked up the strangely-important Port Arthur (which has largely disappeared since then), but were forced out of it by the major European powers. When one of those powers, Tsarist Russia, picked up Port Arthur for itself, Japan was angry enough to in 1904 attack and ultimately defeat the Russians, getting for itself a “concession” in Manchuria and, in the process, getting Tsar Nikolai a reputation for utter incompetence that played no small role in the 1917 Communist Revolution.

Then during World War I Japan opportunistically picked up several Pacific island groups  for the purpose of serving as battlefields in World War II. Japan’s actions convinced Western analysts that her expansionist aspirations were bound to start another war. And they did.

In 1931, the Japanese Kwantung Army in Manchuria engineered (no pun intended, inasmuch as it did involve a railroad engine) an “incident” that turned Japan’s concession into complete occupation of Manchuria. In 1937, an incident at the Marco Polo Bridge outside Beijing that is still not fully explained turned into a full blown Japanese invasion of mainland China. A war that Japan studiously called an “incident.” Which it was, in the same way the Thirty Years War was an “incident.”

All the while, Japan’s government (its constitution was based on that of Imperial Germany, which explains a few things) was slipping into fascism and a novel concept called “government by assassination.” The media was tightly controlled, the Kempeitai – Japan’s Gestapo – and a little-known group called the “Thought Police” (yes, they actually had that) took care of any hint of seditious thought. The population was whipped up into a hypernationalist fervor. The West, the Europeans, the United States, they were told, were all trying to keep Japan from reaching her rightful place in the world.

Any of this sound familiar? Like it happened almost yesterday? It should. Because it did. Just replace “Japan” with “China.” Like Imperial Japan, China has undergone a massive program of modernization. Like Imperial Japan, China has a highly centralized government. Like Imperial Japan, China is trying to whip its population into a hypernationalist fervor, helped along by events such as the 2008 Beijing Olympics (apparently the Olympics learned nothing from its experience in Berlin in 1936). And like Imperial Japan, China thinks it is entitled to a hegemony in East Asia, but is being held back by the West, especially the United States.

Imperial Japan’s ambitions ran from the Meiji Restoration until they ended with World War II. That point has not yet been reached with China, but the journey looks depressingly familiar.

The 21st Century began with an “incident” that in an earlier time would have turned into war at the Marco Polo Bridge. In Spring 2001 a Chinese air force pilot shadowing a US Navy P-3 Orion reconnaissance aircraft over the South China Sea decided to intimidate the Americans. His hot dogging resulted in a collision, killing the Chinese pilot and forcing the Orion into an emergency landing on, of all places, the heavily-militarized Chinese island of Hainan. China blamed the US for the incident. The US crew and the plane were “detained” until the US made a deliberately ambiguous but apologetic statement about the incident.

China claims most of the South China Sea as its own, apparently on the logic that “Hey! Our name’s on it!” Perhaps they could file a trademark infringement case over it had they not already constructed an entire industry around the piracy of other countries’ intellectual property. Nevertheless China seems determined to enforce that claim. In 2009, elements of the bizarrely-named “People’s Liberation Army Navy” and other Chinese ships surrounded the unarmed US reconnaissance ship Impeccable in the South China Sea and tried to cut its passive sonar cable.

But if China is like this to the US, imagine how it feels to be one of its East Asian neighbors. Part of an op-ed from The Philippine Star:

In schools, neighborhoods, and offices lurk bullies menacing the meek. Around the world too skulk bully-countries threatening the weak. In Asia that bully is China. Classic bullying is China’s proclivity for deceit and violence, not mutual respect, in dealing with neighbor-states. Yet like a common bully, it behaves if authorities are around or when it gets its comeuppance. China asserts a baseless “nine-dash line” claim over the 1.35 million square miles of the South China (East Vietnam, West Philippine) Sea. Typical of the bully with made-up turf, it forbids economic usage by smaller Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam, and the Philippines. This, despite their all being members of the UN Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, that grants 200-mile exclusive economic zones from their coasts. China’s sea claim extends up to 800 miles beyond its southernmost island-province of Hainan... China has interdicted even an Indian vessel that was traversing Vietnam’s coastal waters to help explore offshore oil. Like a bully, China takes its unchallenged misconduct as license to further abuse. Its navy incited poacher launches in the East China Sea to ram a Japanese coast guard patrol boat, killing the captain. In April Chinese soldiers intruded ten miles into India-held Kashmir territory, as if testing the neighbor’s mettle. China carries on its genocide of Tibetans and Uighurs of Xinjiang.

The Philippine government is now regretting kicking the US military out of its bases at Subic Bay and Clark Field (though Clark was rendered temporarily unusable by the eruption of Mount Pinatubo) over the objections of its population. Last year, the Philippines welcomed the US back to the two bases.

The Philippines are hardly the only ones calling China a “bully.” Last December, the Asian foreign affairs journal The Diplomat published a piece titled The Bullies of Beijing: China’s Image Problem. Claiming that “Actions by the People's Republic -- intentional or not -- have created the worst regional environment for China since Tiananmen,” the detailed China’s missteps:

One of the elementary rules of foreign policy is when you are in a hole, stop digging.  But judging by their recent behavior, Beijing’s foreign policy mandarins and national security establishment are clearly in violation of this rule. Despite the diplomat heat China has received for its tough stance on territorial disputes in recent months, the Chinese Foreign Ministry apparently seemed to believe that it could strengthen Chinese claims symbolically by issuing a new passport containing a map that claims the disputed maritime areas in the South China Sea and the contested territories along the Sino-Indian border. The reaction was predictable. Southeast Asian countries, particularly Vietnam and the Philippines, protested loudly. India retaliated by promising to stamp visas containing its own map on Chinese passports. At around the same time as the diplomatic uproar over the new Chinese passport design, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) conducted its first successful landing and take-off operations from its retrofitted aircraft carrier.  The televised test might have boosted the Chinese military’s image and self-confidence, but the message this event sent around the region, given China’s hardline position on territorial disputes and its neighbors’ fears of the PLA’s growing military capabilities, cannot be very reassuring. But that is not the end of the actions taken by China recently that are likely to cost Beijing’s new government dearly.  A few days before Japan’s Diet elections on December 16, which are expected to produce a right-wing government with deep antipathy toward Beijing, the Chinese government escalated its challenge to Japan’s territorial claims to the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands by flying an official, albeit unarmed, maritime surveillance plane over the airspace of the disputed islands.   As expected, the move incensed Tokyo and can only be expected to bolster the Liberal Democratic Party’s (LDP) chances and lend more credence to their call for a tougher policy toward China.

Ah, yes. Japan. Japan has traveled down this road before, at the expense of China and everyone else in East Asia. Which they remember quite well. The legacy of the Second Sino-Japanese War and the Pacific War is an almost complete lack of trust in Japan on the part of the countries of East Asia, a problem exacerbated by Japan’s apparent unwillingness to outwardly recognize her own crimes during those wars. An unwillingness that seems destined to grow. Recent elections gave Prime Minister Abe Shinzo and his Liberal Democratic Party tightened control in the Japanese Diet. Because Abe has some wacky ideas of his own:

[T]he growing missile threat from North Korea and belligerent territorial claims by China have helped boost public support for revising the constitution's war-renouncing Article 9, and easing the ban on collective self defense, which prevents Japan's highly capable armed forces from coming to the aid of the United States or other allies, unless Japan or Japanese forces are attacked first. Dramatic as these changes would be, the LDP's plans for amending the constitution go well beyond security issues, and could return Japan to an earlier and likely less benign version of itself. Draft revisions unveiled by the LDP last year would reduce press freedoms, designate the emperor as the head of state and impose new, nationalist-tinged requirements on citizens. The public would be required, for example, to "respect" the rising-sun flag and "Kimigayo" national anthem -- symbols, in much of Asia, of Japan's World War II-era aggression and colonial expansion... Although Abe's current cabinet is peppered with staunch conservatives, he appointed relative moderates to head the key defense and foreign ministries. Abe so far has refrained from visiting the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, where 14 senior war criminals are enshrined, despite stating plans to do so during his campaign. Such visits invariably draw protests from China and South Korea. He has also acted with restraint in the face of repeated incursions by Chinese patrol ships into territorial waters around the disputed Senkaku Islands. […] Still, Abe's nationalist leanings have managed to bubble to the surface. In April, he touched off a storm of protest from China, South Korea, and Japanese liberals when he stubbornly debated during a Diet session whether Japan had actually "invaded" China or committed "aggression" during the war. He also signaled that he did not fully accept the landmark 1995 apology for Japan's wartime conduct and colonial policies issued by then Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama.

Such statements give Japan’s World War II victims the jitters. This is the reason the US has been involved so much in East Asia since 1945. Why the governments of East Asia who are not strong enough to defend themselves from China and its bullying have traditionally looked to the US.

But the reasons why the US and Britain got their butts kicked early in the Pacific War included the simple fact that they were far away from Asia while Japan was close. The US has had bases in Japan since the end of the war, and both the US and Britain have had basing rights in Singapore for the past decade or so. Now the Philippines are welcoming the US back and Australia has now given the US basing rights. Even Vietnam, who remembers China’s 1979 invasion as more recent than its war against the US, is pondering giving the US basing rights. But those bases – Britain at Singapore, the US at Clark Field, Subic Bay and Cavite Navy Yard – were not enough to stop the Japanese in World War II. Substitute “China” for “Japan” and the Pacific War calculus remains.

To top it off, American involvement in East Asia had revealed that the US government is subject to an electorate that is notoriously fickle. That is largely what got the Republic of Vietnam where it is today.

Which leaves Japan as perhaps the only East Asian bulwark against China. Not a pleasant realization and, given Abe’s statements, a risky one. But given the choice between a potential fascist power and an actual fascist power, the choice is logical. And given the choice between a potentially strong power and an actually strong power, the choice is logical. China’s threats directed at Japan with the aircraft carrier it bought from the Russian used aircraft carriers lot seems laughable alongside Japan’s history of carrier aviation. It’s like the bizarrely-named “People’s Liberation Army Navy” missed that whole Pearl Harbor thing. Granted, China was fighting its own war against Japan at the time, but you’d think they’d have read up since then.

Or even read up on current events. Not commonly known in the US is that a few years ago Japan deployed two aircraft carriers, its first since World War II – the Hyuga and the Ise. These two ships are technically classified as helicopter-carrying “destroyers,” a designation that draws guffaws from naval analysts who note their beam-length flight decks that can be easily modified to handle VTOL and VSTOL aircraft. Hyuga and Ise were also named after World War II battleships that after the Battle of Midway were converted to weird hybrid battleship aircraft carrier things. The choice of names for these new ships is no coincidence.

So, again, history is about to repeat itself. Japan circa 1936 is now China of 2013. Whether China can or even wants to avoid becoming Japan of 1941 remains to be seen. But the bullies of 1936 potentially becoming the protectors of 2013 suggests East Asia has now come full circle.

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