China territorial disputes: a warning in the history of Imperial Japan
The emerging Japan of the 1920s and ’30s, like today’s China, was steeped in historic resentment of the West’s forcible imposition of commercial and cultural influence. Both countries set about building military capabilities commensurate with their new economic prowess.
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It has made claims in the Indian Ocean and implemented a “string of pearls” strategy of bases and diplomatic ties along the Bay of Bengal. Its submarine base and concentration of strategic naval forces near its South China Sea province of Hainan enable it to interdict shipping at the three crucial chokepoints in the Indian Ocean – Bab el Mandeb, the Strait of Hormuz, and the Strait of Malacca.Skip to next paragraph
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The geographic footprint of China’s claims and expanding reach in East Asia, including its strategic aspirations for the first and second island chains extending to Guam, is almost congruent to Imperial Japan’s planned map for its Co-Prosperity Sphere.
Obviously, no historic analogy is ever entirely apposite, and there are many differences between Imperial Japan in the 1930s and ’40s and China ruled by the Communist Party today. But there are more than enough parallels in strategic ambitions to awaken realistic concerns among Western policymakers and those who influence them.
As China tries its hand at a new version of a Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, the US needs to lead a united international response that discourages further Chinese adventurism.
Washington began such an approach during the last two years of the George W. Bush administration and has accelerated this Asia “pivot” or “rebalancing” under President Obama. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is in the region this week, building collaboration among America’s friends and allies to settle territorial disputes jointly with China, which prefers bilateral talks – a strategy that gives it the upper hand.
At a press conference in China, the secretary aptly described the US-China relationship as one in which “Our two nations are trying to do something that has never been done in history, which is to write a new answer to the question of what happens when an established power and a rising power meet.”
It’s a question that concerns a great many more countries than these two. Whether the US is led by a President Obama or President Romney, America will have to find the resources and diplomacy to continue its regional collaboration in Asia – ensuring that, this time, the outcome will be something better than war.
Lt. Gen. Wallace C. "Chip” Gregson Jr., retired, is senior director of China and the Pacific at the Center for the National Interest. He served as commander US Marine Corps Forces Pacific, and as assistant secretary of defense for Asia-Pacific security affairs from 2009-2011.
Joseph A. Bosco served in the office of the secretary of Defense as China country desk officer and previously taught graduate seminars on China-US relations at Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service. He is now a national security consultant.