Last week saw the 163rd anniversary of an event that changed the course of Asia-Pacific history. On July 14, 1853, Commodore Matthew C. Perry, with a squadron of four U.S. warships, landed at Kurihama, Japan to deliver a letter from President Millard Fillmore to the Shogunate. Japan was a country literally frozen in time, cut off from the rest of the world for over two centuries by its self-imposed policy of isolation called Sakoku. Perry’s letter demanded, under the implied threat of force, the opening of Japanese ports to trade and supply with the United States, establishment of a consulate, and other concessions.
Perry’s demonstration of force put Japan’s defenselessness against modern military technology in stark relief and motivated a period of stunningly rapid Japanese economic, societal, and military modernization and expansion. That trajectory also led an ascendant Japan into violent conflict with the United States in World War II, a history with worrying parallels today. China too has been shocked by displays of U.S. military might into rapid military modernization paired with unprecedented economic growth. Today, the United States commonly describes China’s military intentions as “opaque.” China decries what it calls the U.S. pursuit of hegemony and a Cold War mindset. An appreciation for the last century’s violent history in the Pacific—and the policies that drove it—may help both powers avoid repeating that history in this one.
Like Commodore Perry’s squadron of “black ships” anchored off Kurihama, the First Gulf War and the 1996 Taiwan Strait Crisis awakened China’s leaders to its military backwardness and motivated an extraordinary period of military modernization. Admiral Dennis Blair, former head of Pacific Command and Director of National Intelligence, summed up China’s reaction to the U.S. success in Kuwait against the Iraqi army in a report on China’s military modernization:
The results of the First Gulf War in 1991 had been an unpleasant jolt. Chinese military experts had confidently predicted heavy going for the American-led coalition against the battle-tested, Soviet equipped Iraqi armed forces. It was clear that the People’s Liberation Army was falling behind world military standards.
The array of technologies and operational concepts the U.S. used to push the Iraqi military out of Kuwait, including stealth planes, guided bombs, battle networks, and satellites, had been developed as part of “the second offset” during the last years of the Cold War. Unable to match the Soviet Army man-for-man or tank-for-tank in Western Europe, U.S. planners designed a suite of new weapons and fighting concepts that integrated advanced sensors, communications, and new precision guided munitions that would multiply the effectiveness of the smaller NATO forces and negate the size advantage of the massive but comparatively lumbering Warsaw Pact armies. The U.S. military hardware and operational design had been tailor-made to defeat Iraq’s Soviet equipment, and was more advanced than much of the bloated Chinese arsenal at the time.
If the Gulf War showed China how far behind it had fallen behind the United States, it was soon to feel the coercive power of that military advantage turned in its direction. In 1996 China conducted a series of missile tests and massive military exercises in the vicinity of Taiwan in response to a visit to the U.S. by the Taiwanese president, hoping simultaneously to warn Taiwan against declaring independence and the U.S. against intervening on Taiwan’s behalf. The United States responded by deploying two aircraft carriers. The move not only signaled U.S. resolve to prevent a violent unification but revealed China’s technological impotence against U.S. intervention or military coercion. A RAND study tracing the Chinese military’s evolution since 1996 explains, “The Chinese military’s inability to locate – much less attack – these aircraft carriers demonstrated its inability to use force against Taiwan should the United States intervene.”
In combination, these events helped motivate a wholesale modernization of China’s military with particular focus on blunting advantages in communications and weapons delivery that the United States had enjoyed since the end of Cold War. A Congressional Research Service study on China’s naval modernization describes its anti-access/area denial capabilities, such as advanced anti-ship ballistic and cruise missiles, sensors, surveillance, command and control, and offensive cyber technologies. These advances enable China to pose “a potential challenge in the Western Pacific to the U.S. Navy’s ability to achieve and maintain control of blue-water ocean areas in wartime—the first such challenge the U.S. Navy has faced since the end of the Cold War.” The RAND study of China’s military capability notes that while China’s military still lags behind the United States’, it has already made sufficient strides such that it “does not necessarily have to overtake the U.S. military in terms of quality, or even the number of high-end naval or air systems, to challenge it and potentially emerge victorious” in limited conflicts.
When Perry landed in Japan it had no naval force to speak of and had not even possessed an ocean-going vessel for more than 200 years. The appearance of America’s four modern, steam-driven warships bristling with heavy cannon shocked the Shogunate. Determined not to become a vassal state or pseudo-colony (like what befell China during its “century of humiliation”), less than 20 years after Perry’s landing Japan had built its first dry dock in Yokosuka to begin assembling a modern navy. Seventy years later the Imperial Navy faced off against the U.S. in the Pacific. By the end of WWII, nearly 700 Japanese warships were sunk, along with over eight million tons of merchant shipping, to say nothing of millions of lives lost.
China is well on its way to “offsetting” the U.S. “second offset” technologies and concepts that spooked it in the 1990s. In response, the U.S. is already working on a third offset to counter China’s anti-access/area denial capabilities. Of course Asia is different today than it was in 1853 or 1941. Military power is also different; the nuclear balance between the U.S. and China makes a clash of WWII-scale highly unlikely. But other factors are more familiar. A U.S. Army War College examination of the start of WWII highlights the impact of the U.S.-imposed oil embargo to punish Japanese occupation of Indochina on Japan’s decision to attack Pearl Harbor. The study concludes that despite Japan’s military and industrial inferiority to the United States, “in threatening Japan’s economic destruction…the United States placed the Japanese in a position in which the only choices open to them were war or subservience.”
Japan chose war. That historical context makes The Washington Post editorial board’s recommendation last year that the U.S. consider economic sanctions against China to punish its assertiveness in the South China Sea, domestic crackdowns, and other “brazenness” all the more unnerving. The 19th and 20th century history of a rising Pacific power spurred by American military and economic might demands remembering as the U.S. formulates its policies toward China.