Perry in Japan, War in the Pacific, and the Rise of China

The United States has spooked a rising Pacific power before.

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 calledSakoku. 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. Read more…

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