In a disturbing parallel, China in 2011 seems to have started down the same warpath that led Japan to attack the United States 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 the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), which comprises all of China’s armed forces, 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 — U.S. air bases on Guam in the central Pacific, Kadena on the southern Japanese island of Okinawa, and Misawa in northeastern Japan.

Just as Japan sought to knock out the U.S. fleet based at Pearl Harbor, so “the PLA’s objective would be to deny U.S. 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 PLA, which is highly nationalistic, has become increasingly independent of the Communist Party that governs China. Like the Japanese Imperial Army, the PLA has struck off on its own foreign and military policy even as it pledges loyal to the Party the same way the Japanese Imperial Army pledged loyalty to the Emperor.
  • The objective of the PLA is to drive American forces and interests out of East Asia just as the Japanese intended to drive the French, British, Dutch, Portuguese, and American colonialists from Asia. (Even though Japan was defeated in 1945, the European and U.S. 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 the commander of U.S. forces in Asia, Admiral Timothy Keating, that the U.S. withdraw to Hawaii and the Eastern Pacific while Chinese warships patrolled the Western Pacific, much as the Japanese proposed in 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 though which resources such as oil and ores flowed to their home economies. Japan turned Hainan Island, at the northern end of that sea, into a logistics base while Chinese have built naval and air bases there.
  • According to the historian Herbert Feis, Admiral Kichisaburo Nomura was sent to Washington in early 1941 “to persuade the American government to accede to what Japan was doing.” The Chinese, in their appeals to the U.S. 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, 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 U.S. 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 U.S. had no will for a long fight. China, after preemptive strikes, would assume a defensive stance, CSBA said, “until the U.S. 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 U.S. can persuade the Chinese that trying to drive the U.S. 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.

About the Author

  • Richard Halloran
    Richard Halloran, who writes the weekly column called “The Rising East,” contributes articles on Asia and US relations with Asia to publications in America and Asia. His career can be divided into thirds: One third studying and reporting on Asia, another third writing about national security, and the last third on investigative reporting or general assignment. He did three tours in Asia as a correspondent, for Business Week, The Washington Post, and The New York Times, and was a military correspondent for The New York Times for ten years. He is the author of Japan: Images and Realities and To Arm a Nation: Rebuilding America’s Endangered Defenses, and four other books. As a paratrooper, Halloran served in the US, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, and Vietnam. He has been awarded the George Polk Award for National Reporting, the Gerald R. Ford Prize for Distinguished Reporting on National Defense, the U.S. Army’s Outstanding Civilian Service Medal, and Japan’s Order of the Sacred Treasure. He holds an AB from Dartmouth