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.
What relevance has that seven decade-old campaign to today? The past few years have seen Washington, D.C. increasingly worried that a newly powerful and assertive China seeks to follow the same path that Japan did of setting up a new order in Asia. Beijing’s goal, many believe, is to reduce U.S. influence and give China a commanding position in the region’s political, economic and security issues – though whether this will be done through peaceful or aggressive means is debated. Few in Britain in 1941 believed that Japan would risk an all-out war with the world’s major powers, even though it had successfully disposed of China and Russia through conflict decades before.
Similarly, most observers today assume China would do nothing to upset the peaceful trading system from which it has benefitted so much, or be so rash as to challenge the far more powerful United States. Yet the truth is that no one can know what China will ultimately decide is in its best interests as it gets stronger, possibly not even China’s leaders themselves. Therefore, we must guard against assuming we know what China, or any rising power, will do. As Beijing’s willingness to use its maritime patrol vessels to threaten nations with whom it has disputes on the sea suggests, and as the scale of its military buildup indicates, the idea of conflict breaking out isn’t impossible to conceive.
American military leaders know they, too, face the tyranny of distance; it takes three weeks to steam from San Diego to the Strait of Malacca, for example. Not only do American forces have to cover an extraordinary large amount of territory in the Pacific, they have to maintain supply lines just as stretched as the British ones were. Hence, the Pentagon’s recent emphasis on expanding its access to countries such as Australia, the Philippines, and Singapore itself. Nonetheless, an extended conflict would severely test U.S. logistics capability and perhaps force a reconsideration of war plans, just as it did for Percival in Singapore.
On top of all this, both the U.S. Navy and U.S. Air Force, which would do the bulk of the fighting in the Pacific, will be shrinking in the coming years. While U.S. officials promise that defense budget cuts won’t affect the U.S. position in Asia, ultimately, fewer (and older) ships and planes, and overworked personnel, will find it harder to maintain U.S. presence in the region during peacetime, let alone have all the resources they would need for a significant conflict.
Finally, as the Japanese invasion of Singapore teaches, innovation and speed make up for smaller numbers. China won’t have a military more powerful than the United States for decades, if ever. Yet it may not need one. It can bring all of its force to bear locally at a point, or few points, of its choosing. That may be enough to defeat American forces that are sent to intervene, and force U.S. leaders to make the difficult choice to commit more men and materiel to the fight or withdraw. Such a calculation alone could embolden Chinese to more aggressive action or cause U.S. political leaders to blink at responding to hostilities.
These lessons aren’t meant to predict a war. There remains every reason for Washington and Beijing to keep peaceful relations. But history is full of surprises, usually for status quo powers. The United States maintains extraordinary strength and with the right economic growth policies can be the world’s dominant nation for decades to come. But it may not be able to be dominant all the time in regions with rising powers. The lessons of Singapore remind us not to overestimate our strengths and to honestly face up to our weaknesses.
Michael Auslin is a resident scholar in Asian and security studies at the American Enterprise Institute.