In previous wars involving America and Japan, military clout was everything, now it is no more than a side show. Today, the war will be over oil, trade routes and national debts, and in every factor, it is China that is on the attack.
In 1940, when the US cut the supply of oil to Japan, they began a chain of events which within the year would result in the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, and within five years the destruction of the majority of every Japanese city by US bombing raids leaving hundreds of thousands dead. The seizure of Japan by the US, and the partitioning of their remaining territory with Russia and China has defined the northern pacific ever since.
And yet tomorrow, Japan’s Prime Minister is making a trip to Washington D.C. to discuss the future terms of a very different relationship from the one played out between defeated enemy and victorious occupier. Though many still live with memories of the burning ships in Pearl Harbour or the flashes of nuclear bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, no other pairing between two former enemies has appeared so close. After half a century of US-imposed pacifist governance, their maritime partner is now inviting Japan to join them in a very different balance of power to the one that began a century ago.
All that time ago, the US had a very limited presence in the pacific, being more interested in holding the rest of the world back from the Americas, its own personal sphere of influence. Britain’s power was beginning to fade as Germany challenged its dominance and the Boers proved a challenge they should not have been. But China, the empire which had remained a constant centre of power for millennia, had been struck down by the European powers. The vice-like-grip of the Dutch East India company began a downfall cemented by the opium wars against Britain, leaving a crippled state more than tempting to the insatiable appetite of Japan. Where European influence had broken China, it had opened the isolated isles of Japan to a world they were more than prepared to face, armed by the US they broke the Russian fleets and seized Korea and Manchuria, their influence stretching across the isles of the pacific. They ate up the Chinese coast and Indo-China, struck down only when those who had once supplied and financed their war efforts drew back in horror at the devastation they were unleashing on Asia, and visited it back upon them tenfold.
In the years after the bombs dropped in their thousands upon the cities of Japan, engulfing them in fire-storms the world had never seen, Japan recovered more swiftly than anyone could have expected. As the first of the Asian dragons they leapt upon opportunities as they came, and emerged an economic powerhouse. But with the rise of the USSR and then China, the Japanese grew ever closer to the one force which could hold the hungry expansion of communism at bay, their previous occupiers.
In what strikes as a nation-scale case of Stockholm Syndrome the Japanese stuck fast to the US throughout the new two-sided conflict with communism, taking capitalism to heart as no other country had done. After Japan regained independence in 1952 the US proved their worth as protectors in the Korean war, holding back the hordes of China and the USSR. A long relationship would continue to warm as the US declared its dedication to protecting Japan against all military threats in a treaty in 1960, and would return the islands seized in 1945 before 1972. As the USSR collapsed and the US turned its attention to the Middle East, Japan would return the favour by deploying its first set of troops since 1945 to Iraq, and developing missile systems with the US. With the fading wars in Europe, and the increased anchoring of Britain to the ever growing political clout of the supranational EU, Japan may very well be set to replace Britain as the true special partner of the US.
Just as Britain formed a special relationship with the colony responsible for the first chink in its ever-growing global empire, so Japan seems to have formed a relationship with the power which destroyed its empires and cities in the interests of protection and the prospects of a future world order. As China continues to rise just across the sea, and the death of Kim Jong-Il seems not to have hampered the isolated insanity of North Korea, Japan represents one of the few fronts in the increasing clashes between China and the 20th Century’s greatest superpower. As Japan drags itself away from the brink of economic crisis and the destruction of the tsunami, it will rise above the waters to see an ever-more aggressive and able China more than willing to flex its muscles in an international arena unrecognisable a century ago.
In this new arena the US is backing a faltering Japan in the face of an increasingly aggressive China in a mirror image of the events of 1940. Then, the conflict was open for all to see in the unstoppable march of Japan’s armies, now the change of hands is more subtle. The early 1990s financial crisis set back the progress of Japan in the same way the opium wars broke the military muscle of China, and now China is marching onwards in a war of economics and trade the indebted Japan may struggle to resist. Even as the US sets up forces in Australia, and Japan’s military begins its first significant expansion, they may be facing a very different shift in power. Expecting a declaration of increased military co-operation between Japan and the US, Guam is to rise as the new pacific military hub for the two powers and will represent a new militarism in Japan not seen in half a century.
Japan finds itself on the opposite side of a new pacific war against an expansionist power. But while previously military clout was everything, now it may be no more than a show. Today the war will be over oil, trade routes and national debts, and in every factor right now China is on the attack.