Monday, December 24, 2012

Containing China - The Historical Analogy with Japan



The following commentary comes from William D. O'Neil via H-War:

The irony of the hand-wringing over "containment" of China is that we've been here before, only no one seems to be able to remember.

As early as the 1890s, widespread alarm was evident in the United States over the specter of Japanese expansionism. This was a mixture of raw ethnocentrism and cold strategic calculation. At the same time, being the kind of country it was (and largely remains) there was no great unity in American views, and many unhesitatingly supported Japan's economic and political ambitions.

Both the Roosevelt (TR) and Wilson Administrations pursued policies of appeasement, while simultaneously building up the navy. The real departure point was the Twenty-One Demands affair of 1915. In the early 1920s the political elites in both countries attempted to build a basis for cooperative relationships, but the rise of very strongly ethnocentric groups in both nations undercut these efforts. Nevertheless, Japan and the United States managed to maintain reasonably productive relationships at many levels during the 1920s, notwithstanding some rather nasty clashes in China, and the ill-will generated by the laws excluding Japanese from American life.

Unfortunately for Japan, the military services fell under the leadership of extremely ethnocentric officers, and the Great Depression undermined those who wanted to advance Japan by economic means. The military came to power, teamed with neoconservative civilians. Japan was in a cycle in which the ethnocentrists would precipitate some expansionist action they saw as essential to national security, the west would respond negatively (even if only symbolically so), and this would evoke fears of "encirclement" (i.e., containment) leading to further expansionism to break out of the "iron ring." Thus even though the anti-Japanese ethnocentrist elements in the west did not hold particularly strong political positions in the 1930s, a self-amplifying positive feedback loop was established and maintained.

Eventually it was the external forcing function of Nazi aggressive expansionism at the other end of Eurasia that tipped Japan into war with the west. It is very possible that matters would never have reached such a pass absent the predominately exogenous shocks of the Great Depression and European War. At the same time, these shocks need not have been fatal had the ethnocentric elements not gained such dominance over Japan.

Despite many changes, the overall sociopolitical constitution of the United States remains much as it has nearly always been. There are both ethnocentric and cosmopolitan elements and neither is likely to be able to establish long-term dominance in the control of the nation's affairs. The United States will thus continue to act somewhat erratically within bounds determined by a broad consensus on basic economic and strategic interests -- which do not in themselves dictate any fundamental conflict with China.

The Chinese system, with its narrow leadership base and lack of regular mechanisms for turnover of power, gives an illusion of a steady hand on policy. But it is even more vulnerable to ethnocentric capture than its Japanese counterpart of the 1920s. Even if this takes place, even if it occurring right now, it need not have effects as terrible as those of World War II, but it would run a very uncomfortably great danger of doing so. The seeming prospect that China is contemplating its own replay of the Tsinan (Jinan) Incident over the Senkakus is anything but reassuring.

Some have objected that no military conflict could eventuate because of the threat of nuclear weapons, but these are not the words of anyone who knows or reflects on history. Ever since humankind has been fighting wars, for at least 100,000 years and very probably longer, unlimited conflicts have always threatened and frequently enough resulted in the destruction of both of the combatant societies. History says very clearly that such a threat may dampen the risks of war but cannot eliminate them. Indeed, the very fact that it is apologists for China (which by any rational calculation would inevitably suffer far more severely in any nuclear exchange) who invariably raise the nuclear specter speaks eloquently of the limited (albeit very great) power of the threat of annihilation.


This post first appeared on Statecraft & Security.
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