The Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941, primarily as a strategic warning to us. They probably did not expect it would mean a total war with them, let alone a total defeat and destruction of their pervasive Asia-Pacific empire.
What Japan wanted was to get us out of the Asia-Pacific region, which they believed was their exclusive domain. Also, there were several ongoing and serious trade disputes between the United States and Japan.
Nevertheless, the attack on Pearl Harbor — even with the hindsight of a rather obvious historical context — was a surprise to us and most of the rest of the world. And it remains a painful, but classic example of the fundamental communication disconnects between Asia and the West.
In short, Pearl Harbor was a classic “strategic miscalculation” by the Japanese and the proximate cause of their total military and political destruction as the pre-eminent power in Asia, where they had ruled for many years. At the same time, it was a classic “strategic miscalculation” by us in that we didn’t see it coming.
The result of the Japanese defeat was the complete realignment of political boundaries in Asia, which caused or contributed to subsequent wars in the region. An example is post-World War II Korea, the place of yet another surprise for us — when hordes of Chinese soldiers swept across the border in 1950 in what we know as the “Korean War.”
Almost a million Chinese soldiers were killed or wounded in the Korean War — with total casualties of more than 5 million — demonstrating the willingness of China to sacrifice virtually unlimited human capital to protect its regional autonomy and influence. For some additional perspective — and in its various conflicts with Japan in the ’30s and ’40s — China lost 20 million-30 million people, depending on which statistical source one selects.
Some basic questions:
• Are we on the way to a similar confrontation with China like we had with Japan? Would we know it if we were? How would we know?”
While it’s scary to contemplate, we probably haven’t thought enough about whether our current tensions with China could result in a military attack of some kind against us, how and where it could happen and our reactions thereto.
In this context, and in the early days of NATO Europe, we had a “trip-wire” policy that assured the Soviet Union that we would use nuclear weapons against them if they invaded/attacked a NATO country. It was a serious deterrent that proved very effective for many years in Europe, and to the frustration of the Soviet Union. Do we need a similar/analogous policy toward China in Asia/Pacific? If we don’t have such a policy does it give China a reason to doubt our resolve?
• Do we understand China is entirely capable of making the same basic kind of miscalculation that the Japanese did, if they carry out military actions against us in the “Asia-Pacific” region?
Unfortunately, we probably don’t see the current conflict/tension with China as including this dynamic; however, it most surely does for China and we should have a plan that addresses this distinct possibility. In other words, a very basic planning assumption should be that any military conflict with China in — or involving the Asia-Pacific region — would likely begin with a surprise attack against us of some kind.
• Are we any better at understanding Asian cultures, motivations and intentions today than we were in 1941?
• Are Asian cultures any better at understanding our culture, motivations and intentions?
Where should we go from here?
China understands the United States much more than the United States understands China, but not nearly as much as it thinks it does. And China is entirely capable of making the same kind of mistake the Japanese did in 1941 — and for an analogous set of reasons. And, what has been described in summary here are events and dynamics that could take place in the near future, and we can be assured that China has planned for them.
Some possible scenarios could arise out of recent events in Hong Kong, Taiwan, the South China Sea, Korea, the China–India border dispute, the financial and political dynamics of COVID-19, currency manipulation, the persecution of minorities in China, immigration, access to key technologies, and the prosecution of Chinese nationals for various crimes, just to name a few.
And above all, and with regard to China and Asia in general, the best lesson here is from “Cool Hand Luke,” in that “what we have here is a failure to communicate.” With China, we should always start from the position that it’s exactly that.
• Daniel Gallington served in senior national security positions.