Read more insightful articles on the theme of History’s Ghosts in the fall issue of World Policy Journal.
By Graham Clark
East Asia today is a hotbed of geopolitical activity. Leaders in Seoul and Tokyo must balance the need for U.S. troops and missile defense systems with popular opposition to heavy American military presence. More broadly, tensions between the U.S. and China continue to pull at every state in the region. Some countries, such as Japan, have opted to double down on their alliances with the U.S., with consistent cooperation between the Abe and Obama administrations on security issues ranging from updating mutual defense guidelines to Japanese procurement of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. Others, such as the Philippines under the administration of President Rodrigo Duterte, have questioned the necessity of partnering closely with the U.S., citing concerns over sovereignty and maintaining an independent foreign policy. Despite fears of showdown between China and the U.S., the region today is far more peaceful and prosperous than in the decades preceding the attack on Pearl Harbor. Still, the nascent security dilemma between China and the United States threatens to upset long-term regional stability. Just as Japanese strategists became increasingly wary of American naval capabilities, territorial acquisitions in the Pacific and commercial interests in China, so too does Beijing eye with concern its encirclement by U.S. allies and heavy American military presence in the region.
East Asia today both resembles and diverges from the East Asia of the interwar years. Geography, American military and commercial interests, and the primacy of naval power have not changed. East Asia is also arming heavily, mirroring the Japanese-American naval arms race in the 1930s, as every state with cash to spare seeks to shore up defense capabilities amid tensions between the region’s most powerful actors. Yet by other important metrics, the region hardly resembles the East Asia of almost a century ago. As Robert Kaplan put it, East Asia today is the demographic and economic “cockpit” of the world. Trade is booming. Regional organizations such as ASEAN have become important forums for diplomacy and communication, facilitating dialogue on issues that all East Asian states have a stake in. Trade between China and the ASEAN community grew from just $41 billion in 2001 to $361 billion in 2011. Two possible futures exist for East Asia and the Sino-American relationship: peace and prosperity, or hostility and war. The Japanese-American strategic relationship in the 1920s and 1930s provides a valuable case study in managing the Pacific security dilemma, and how that process can go awry—with disastrous consequences.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, three developments kick started the Japanese-American security dilemma. First, the U.S. added Guam and the Philippines to its Pacific possessions, providing friendly ports of call for commercial and military vessels. Second, President Theodore Roosevelt constructed a modern naval fleet capable of global reach, giving the U.S. the power projection capabilities to defend its Pacific possessions. Finally, the U.S. declared an “Open Door” policy with regard to foreign access to China, which the Japanese viewed as a threat to their commercial and industrial interests. By 1920, the Japanese government faced a security dilemma with the U.S., but calculated that engaging in a naval arms race would be prohibitively expensive given the severe industrial imbalance between the two countries. At the Washington Naval Arms Conference of 1921-1922, the Japanese delegation agreed to accept a 5:3 ratio of capital ships (with Japan holding the inferior ratio) in exchange for an American promise not to fortify its Pacific possessions. Britain, too, agreed not to fortify Singapore.
The Washington treaty was a major accomplishment, ameliorating the Pacific security dilemma for the next decade. However, by the time of the London Naval Arms Conference in 1930, the political landscape in Japan had changed dramatically. Hardliners in the Japanese Army and Navy felt that Japan had gotten the short end of the stick. According to Japanese naval historian Sadao Asada, Admiral Kato Kanji (who was naval advisor to Navy Minister Kato Tomosaburo at the Washington Conference) thought that, “In our view, their [America and Britain] intention is obviously to deprive the Imperial Navy of its predominance in the Orient.” Throughout the 1920s, Kanji and his “fleet faction” built up broad opposition to the Washington system within the Japanese military, promoting the idea that the U.S. was the ultimate strategic antagonist with whom conflict was inevitable. Following the London Conference of 1930, which saw a repeat of the same arduous debates over fleet ratios, most of the moderate, pro-treaty faction was purged by Navy Minister Osumi Mineo, who was sympathetic to the hardliners. The Japanese annexation of Manchuria in 1931 provided the impetus for the Japanese military to strengthen its hand, and marked the beginning of a shift in Japanese foreign policy, which would eventually lead to Japanese expansion into European colonial possessions in Southeast Asia—the same territories from which the U.S. imported crucial industrial materials. These developments would eventually lead to embargoes by the Roosevelt administration on oil and scrap metal shipments to Japan, beginning the debate in Japanese military circles over whether to launch a preventative strike on the American fleet at Pearl Harbor.
The Japanese-American relationship in the interwar years can be cause for both alarm and reassurance in terms of the nascent security dilemma between the U.S. and China. On one hand, Japan’s policy of expansion by force in order to create an empire capable of self-subsistence was unacceptable to Washington, reminding us that the U.S. has—and will—fight to preserve the status quo in East Asia, particularly in terms of freedom of trade and navigation in international waters. On the other hand, current tensions between China and the U.S. seem minor in comparison to Japanese expansionism in the 1930s. Today, the U.S. maintains a heavy naval presence in the region, going as far as to conduct exercises off the Philippines in June involving two full carrier strike groups. The U.S. Navy’s freedom of navigation patrols in the South China Sea are designed explicitly to send a warning message to Beijing not to repeat the mistakes of imperial Japan. The U.S. remains deeply sensitive to any encroachment on maritime sovereignty and freedom of trade in the region, and is making its commitment to regional allies such as Japan abundantly clear. China, which has sought to test international norms regarding maritime boundaries and use of military assets to enforce its claims, should take U.S. commitment to the region seriously. Moreover, Chinese strategists should not forget that China’s rise has been enabled by the post-war liberal international order constructed by the U.S., and should avoid viewing the U.S. as an inevitable strategic opponent. For its part, Washington would do well to keep Chinese ambition in perspective and acknowledge China’s right to enhance its military capabilities as it becomes a powerful regional actor.
Graham Clark is a graduate of the Bard College political studies department and a former research assistant at World Policy Institute.