The British surrender of Singapore to the Japanese in 1942 should be instructive to U.S. policymakers eyeing China’s rise. War isn’t inevitable, but history is full of surprises.
Seventy years ago, on February 15, 1942, Lt. Gen. A.E. Percival, head of the United Kingdom’s Malaya Command, surrendered Singapore to the Japanese Imperial Army. The defeat of the so-called “Gibraltar of the East” was an even bigger shock to the British than Pearl Harbor was to the Americans just two months previously. Singapore was the cornerstone of the British Empire in Asia and its surrender, the largest in British history, marked the effective end of Britain’s colonial era there. The fall of Singapore still holds some lessons, even in a time of peace, and should serve as a cautionary tale for any power, such as the United States, playing a dominant role so far from home.
The first lesson is that a rising regional power will seek to displace an external status quo power. While intra-regional competition among established and new powers is common (as witnessed by centuries of European history), the position of a foreign status quo power in any given region is particularly vulnerable. It was relatively easy for the British to rule various divided territories in Asia since the East India Company first set up shop in Madras in 1639 and began spreading eastward. But the emergence of a cohesive, ambitious, and aggressive imperial Japan ultimately set up a clash between a Britain seeking to preserve its exposed position and a Japan bent on rewriting the regional security order. In fact, the British failure to renew its alliance with Tokyo in 1921 helped speed Japanese expansion in Asia, by ending cooperation between the two and removing restraints on Japanese ambitions. Ultimately, American sanctions on Tokyo threatened to derail its military strength, and Japan’s leaders decided to gamble on attacking all Western powers in Asia in a bid to secure vital raw materials and destroy European colonial holdings.
The second lesson is that miscalculating an adversary’s operational intentions (or misreading his doctrine) can lead to early and insurmountable reverses. Japan’s surprise attack on Singapore and its unorthodox strategy was crucial in knocking the British off balance and preventing them from effectively regrouping, even though they outnumbered the Japanese forces they faced. The British had long assumed that any Japanese attack, if it came, would be from the sea, and Singapore’s great guns were all emplaced facing out over the water. Gen. Tomoyuki Yamashita, who would be executed for war crimes in 1946, devised a brilliant plan to neutralize Singapore by capturing British Malaya first, then invading the island fortress from the north. He launched his invasion on December 8, 1941 and his force of approximately 30,000 combat troops took just two months to reduce the peninsula, before advancing on Singapore in a pincer movement. Fighting in Singapore itself lasted just a week before the smaller Japanese force captured over 80,000 British, Australian, Indian, and Malayan troops.
The third lesson is that tyranny of distance helped doom the British. For generations, Singapore was assumed to be impregnable, the very symbol of British might overseas. Yet, as Percival knew all too well, it was also isolated, undersupplied, and unprepared for war. The British were simply too far from home to be able to effectively resupply the island in the short crisis before collapse. The Japanese dominated the air, and had been bombing the island since December, with only token British resistance. The Royal Navy was driven from the seas around Singapore when HMS Prince of Wales and Repulse had been sunk off Malaya just two days after Pearl Harbor. The British had difficulty maintaining communications with their regional commands on the island. The Japanese attacked the island’s water stations, and it was this, along with dwindling food supplies, that finally forced Percival to heed the entreaties of his subordinate commanders and surrender. The war in Asia would rage for three more years, and the British would play only a marginal role in defeating Japan.