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Of Suns and Dragons: Navigating the Way Ahead with China

Lieutenant (Junior Grade) Daniel Stefanus, USN

(Note: Reprinted from Proceedings with permission; Copyright © (2017) U.S. Naval Institute / The submitted essay was titled, "Of Suns and Dragons: Imperial Japan’s Rise, the United States Navy, and America’s Approach to Contemporary China.")

In the late 19th century, a new day dawned in the Pacific, and two rising powers began the tortuous dance of rivalry. As Imperial Spain imploded under domestic and colonial pressures, the United States swiftly usurped its seat in the international order with Admiral George Dewey’s victory at Manila Bay. Similarly, Imperial Japan ravaged Russian power in the Pacific at Tsushima and Port Arthur, stunning the West. By the 1920s, both the United States and Japan enjoyed great prosperity, but as the eagle and sun soared, so their interests diverged and the maritime competition escalated.

Twenty-first century China’s sprint toward modernization and military might bears ominous markers of Imperial Japan’s tragic path. Using key parallels from its past competition and conflict with Imperial Japan as a guide, the U.S. Navy must discover and employ new warfighting technologies while exploiting Chinese developmental weaknesses; advance tactical innovation and decentralization; embrace and enforce the international system as the core of its maritime strength and legitimacy; embark on new rounds of mutual limitation treaties; and retain a fleet of the quantity and quality necessary for deterrence and enforcement. These aims, gleaned from past errors with the Japanese, will sustain U.S. maritime superiority while maintaining a harmonious balance of power as a revisionist China attempts to reclaim mastery of East Asia. 

The Rising Sun

Imperial Japan seemed to emerge, as if by providence, from the dark ages of isolation and poverty into a great power within two generations. Its success largely was built on a national ethic of sacrifice and betterment that put Japan’s industrialization and attainment of military parity with the Western powers above all else.1 Japan’s seemingly easy victories over China in 1895 and Russia in 1905 appeared to validate its destiny as the future leader of Asia. Japanese leaders came to believe they were the superior race destined to bring Asia into the modern era.2 This Japanese version of imperialism shocked Asia and the Western powers in 1915 when Japan delivered its infamous 21 demands to China.3 If accepted, these demands would have given Japan domination over China and as such were widely condemned. Japan’s cavalier campaigning across the Pacific to seize German territories, its initial refusal to return Tsingtao to China, and its duplicitous intervention in Siberia during the Russian Revolution provoked international rebuke.4

By the conclusion of the Treaty of Versailles, a new naval arms race was brewing as Japan embarked on its eight battleship and eight battlecruiser construction program. The United States, increasingly weary of its new role abroad, initially began such construction but soured on it because of costs. In 1921, the United States proposed a conference in Washington, D.C., to avert another ruinous rivalry culminating in a great war. Bucking diplomatic custom, the United States launched the conference with immediate, concise, and unprecedented proposals to restrict naval construction.5 The resulting Washington Naval Treaty of 1921-22—with its famous 5:5:3 capital ship tonnage ratio among the United States, the United Kingdom, and Japan—arrested this budding arms race and scores of battleships on the slips went to the scrap-yards. Unfortunately, the treaty existed alongside increasing mistrust among these three nations. Under extensive pressure from the Americans, the British allowed the Anglo-Japanese alliance to lapse in 1923 as the United States sought to check Japanese aggrandizement in the Far East. Frustrated, but at peace, Japan spent the following years focused on domestic affairs and the blossoming of democracy in the Taisho era.

By the late 1920s, as the Great Depression struck, however, authoritarians in the Japanese Army and Navy assumed ever-greater command over the nation’s direction. In 1932, a gang of naval officers assassinated Prime Minister Tsuyoshi Inukai for denouncing the military’s unchecked power. Subsequently, all meaningful resistance to the military’s control of national politics ceased.6 The Army already had triggered the invasion of Manchuria and was now hell-bent on conquering China and possibly eastern Russia. By 1938, 70 percent of Imperial Japan’s budget was allocated to the military.7  

Internationally, the League of Nations and the United States decried Japanese belligerence in China but failed to act in any meaningful way. “The League and the United States were discredited in Japanese eyes because they failed to back up their moral disapproval with action. . . . Japan seemed increasingly impervious to the dictates of world opinion.”8 Similarly, the system of naval limitation treaties had served to check the great naval powers, but by the second London Naval Conference in 1936, Japan no longer cared about foreign opinions and walked over efforts to limit its ambitions. By 1941, Japan believed in its own destiny and that the West’s resistance was mere rhetoric. Hence, a drive to the south to seize the priceless natural resources of the Dutch East Indies was seen as necessary and not necessarily risky. The Americans would be crushed in a rapid and limited war over territories in which they seemed to have little true interest. 

Japan’s conquest and annexation of southern French Indochina, however, enraged the United States and its allies. The Americans, British, and Dutch already had implemented a sweeping embargo of key resources—most notably oil and metals—to an island nation dependent on imports, but the United States’ 1941 freeze of Japanese assets abroad cut off Japan’s ability to trade.9 Having lost 90 percent of its oil imports, and with a military government backed by the most powerful navy then in Asia, Japan believed it had no choice but war. 

Devastating blows at Pearl Harbor, the Philippines, Guam, Malay, and the Dutch East Indies shocked not only Western powers, but even the Japanese with how rapidly they secured their ambitions. The Imperial Japanese Navy’s key investments in aircraft carriers and their air wings, long-range, wakeless torpedoes, and night warfare ensured its initial maritime superiority. Still, within the first year of the war, the navy’s liabilities became clear: poor maritime logistics; submarines used as scouts instead of commerce raiders; little investment in antisubmarine warfare; few reservists; slow training programs; and an overstretched battle fleet.10

The U.S. Navy exploited these weaknesses to dramatic effect by combining a sequential and a cumulative strategy to destroy Japanese maritime power.11 In the sequential “island-hopping” campaign, the United States leveraged its industrial might to develop better aircraft, aircraft carriers, and escorts in massive quantities. The Navy furthered its advantages by using advanced refueling and logistics procedures it developed in the interwar years to create mobile task forces unreliant on fixed bases.12 This mobility allowed the Americans to strike rapidly and unpredictably across the Pacific in ways unthinkable to the Japanese. 

The Navy’s most important advantage was its culture of tactical innovation and decentralization. Whether pioneering the combat information center or developing the modern carrier-based task group, the Americans’ initiative and flexibility permitted them to consistently overcome obstacles in ways unthinkable or ignored by the Japanese. Imperial Japan’s famously well-educated and disciplined officers suffered under their inflexible structure. They were too tribal, overly hierarchical, and poor at improvisation during crises.13 By focusing on U.S. strengths and exploiting Japanese weaknesses, the Navy defeated the Japanese throughout its sequential campaign. 

Nevertheless, it was the U.S. cumulative strategy against Japan’s shipping fleet that most devastated Japan’s maritime power. U.S. submarines decimated Japanese merchant shipping, the arterial system fueling the imperial body. The United States recognized Japanese weaknesses in antisubmarine warfare and their failure to adopt the convoy system. U.S. submariners destroyed 90 percent of Japanese shipping with little resistance, stranding the prized Dutch East Indies oil for which Japan had launched the war. As losses mounted, Japanese units were forced to restrict operations and shift to the south, refueling directly in Indonesia. This caused a dangerous dispersion of forces in a fleet already spread thin and massively outnumbered. Without oil, the Imperial Japanese Navy ceased to be a fighting force by the end of 1944. The U.S. Navy had gained maritime supremacy.

China Today

 At the beginning of this century, a new maritime power dawns in East Asia. China, long plagued by internal division, economic backwardness, and external manipulation, recaptured the mantle of power in Asia and has become the global economy’s growth engine.14 Despite China’s emulation of Western economic models since Deng Xiaoping, however, it has remained an authoritarian state. The U.S. Navy, as the frontline guardian of international free trade and maritime security, has become the focus of Chinese military policy. China’s Han nationalism and Confucian appeals to historic greatness have rallied the public behind an ever more aggressive foreign policy characterized by bilateral bullying, duplicity, and sowing discord in U.S.-supported groups such as the Association of South East Asian Nations. Examples such as its aggressive buildup of reclaimed islands in the South China Sea, its provocative harassing of Japanese vessels near the Senkaku Islands, and its unilateral declaration of an air defense identification zone in the East China Sea reveal China’s disregard for the rules and norms of a system it regards as prejudicial to its security and exercise of power. China’s need for a massive naval buildup is dubious unless it has grander ambitions for regional hegemony. 

Despite the Chinese military’s technological prowess, especially in the missile, cyber, and electronic domains, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) is experiencing growing pains akin to those of the Imperial Japanese Navy. As such, many tactics, procedures, and competences are in their embryonic stages. For example, China remains in the stages of proto-jointness, classifying exercises where multiple branches operate near each other as joint. China also suffers from rigid command structures and a lack of delegated authority. Problems with damage control, command-and-control networks, antisubmarine warfare, and the employment of submarines are similarly significant. 

Comparing Imperial Japan’s Rise to China’s

Crucially, in the areas most applicable to the exercise of modern sea power, contemporary China and Imperial Japan are remarkably similar: militant nationalism; economic preeminence in East Asia; a burgeoning string of overseas bases; a sustained, technologically advanced naval buildup; no peer regional competitors; the relative waning of the established powers; and mass propaganda characterized by cognitive dissonance and double speak.15 There are differences. Most notably, China is not an island reliant on maritime trade, and it has the potential to be the industrial and economic equal of the United States. 

China’s contempt for crucial international agreements and institutions, such as the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea and the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, echoes Imperial Japan’s disregard for the League of Nations and arms limitation treaties. Unlike the 1930s, however, the United States currently sits at the apex of a collaborative international system that is drastically different from the imperialist structure that birthed Meiji Japan. As such, the United States can count on resources, norms, and relationships that will attempt to restrain systemic disruptors in ways that did not exist when Imperial Japan attempted Asian hegemony.

War in 1941 with Japan does not mean war with China is unavoidable or even a likely outcome. It is crucial that all parties accept that the United States is but one side of a complex relationship, one that can be derailed regardless of the “right choices” and the best aspirations. 

Sea Power Lessons for Today 

•          Embrace Emergent Forms of Warfare and Exploit Chinese Weaknesses. Today’s disruptive technological environment resembles what U.S. naval planners in the 1920s and 1930s faced as the aircraft swiftly evolved from feeble reconnaissance vehicle to devastating monoplane. Visionary factions foresaw the need to pivot from the big-gun battle line and to aircraft carrier aviation as the next evolution of maritime warfare. Many now mock those battleship stalwarts, and yet today the U.S. Navy grapples with a similar debate on the relevance of its current iteration of the one-platform-centric model.16 Today’s Navy must learn the lessons of this previous debate and adopt them more vigorously than the Navy of 1929 did. In that year, when the aircraft carrier USS Saratoga (CV-3) launched a successful “attack” on the Panama Canal, or in a 1938 exercise when then-Vice Admiral Ernest J. King surged his carriers behind a storm front to suddenly burst forth and “shatter” the defenses of San Francisco Bay, it was obvious that new forms of warfare had arrived.17

The U.S. Navy must remain vigilant to shifts in war---fighting and never fall behind. Great navies were rendered impotent when HMS Dreadnought was launched in 1906; hypersonic missiles, cyber weapons, drones, and a myriad of other emergent technologies could transform warfare today. Research, innovation, and experimentation must be accelerated if the U.S. Navy is to recapture crucial lost ground, both in traditional technologies such as antiship missiles and potentially revolutionary capabilities such as cyber weapons and artificial intelligence. 

The U.S. Navy also must focus on key Chinese oversights brought about by the PLAN’s rapid naval expansion and relatively insignificant combat experience. Massive expansions often focus on the new while neglecting traditional, less exciting, but crucial equipment and capabilities such as logistics, reserves, training, intelligence, basic research, and antisubmarine warfare.18 The PLAN shows signs of such flaws. The U.S. Navy must develop targeted tactics and equipment that leverage such weaknesses just as it did against the Japanese.

•          Hone Tactical Ingenuity and Flexibility. The U.S. Navy’s greatest advantage in combat remains its belief in commander’s intent and a decentralized warfare construct that does not overburden any single node with excessive responsibility or criticality. From distributed lethality to multidomain battle, there are many opportunities for warfighters to showcase the battlefield brilliance and creativity that have long been the calling cards of the U.S. Navy. China, like Imperial Japan, uses much more rigid, centralized structures that inhibit initiative and are prone to stumbling, unable to seize unfolding opportunities. Innovative, decentralized tactics executed with commander’s intent will prove decisive if U.S. and Chinese fleets clash and therefore must be perfected now.

•          Embrace and Enforce the International Maritime System. The U.S. military’s unprecedented strength rests on the international system of political and economic alliances that it constructed following World War II. Friend or foe, no nation must be permitted to skirt or override international law without the prescribed punishments. As Imperial Japan’s precedent makes clear, the United States can bemoan Chinese encroachment in the South China Sea endlessly, but if there are no consequences for its actions, China will view these words as mere rhetoric, as did the Japanese. “On many occasions moral utterances were substituted for policy and made the excuse for doing nothing.”19 U.S. maritime superiority is the key to inhibiting aggression in the Pacific because the U.S. Navy is the ultimate arbiter of these rules and must enforce them when breached. The lack of enforcement was the principal reason Imperial Japan’s radicalism vaulted so quickly from emperor worship to martial dictatorship as the West failed to counteract Japan’s repeated breaches of international law. China must not be similarly emboldened by inaction. 

•          Use Treaties to Preserve the Status Quo. Just as the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaties, the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, and the Chemical Weapons Convention have been enormously successful, formal naval limitations remain relevant to securing maritime security for the United States, its allies, and global commerce. Given the Japanese precedent, agreed limitations on maritime warfare capabilities offer a peaceful solution that would ensure the United States’ and its allies’ security interests while permitting China to build a reasonable maritime force. Such agreements could focus on antiship missiles, cyber capabilities, and amphibious forces. By limiting an arms race, the United States secures an acceptable status quo, reduces the risk of misperception, promotes transparency, and binds itself with China in a positive framework that ensures mutual prosperity. So long as international pressure and enforcement remain consistent, the treaty system can work as it did with Imperial Japan until 1936 when Western enforcement faltered.

•          Retain the Size and Quality Necessary for a Global Fleet. As diplomacy failed, the United States suffered greatly by allowing its fleet to wither as Japan rearmed in the 1930s. “Roosevelt was acutely aware of the intimate relationship between the effectiveness of diplomacy and available military force, and the lack of available military clout was a factor in his restraint in issues where his internationalist tendencies would have led him into action.”20 The United States cannot deter if it lacks the credible combat power to do so. Renewed calls for a larger navy, of 355 ships or more, are appropriate and necessary if the United States is to retain maritime superiority and defend the international system on which global prosperity rests. 

•          Retain All Options. As Imperial Japan’s example reveals, when a previously abused and oppressed nation achieves significant levels of wealth and power there is an alarming temptation to upset an established international system. As a result, the U.S. Navy and its allies must check China’s latent belligerence before a tipping point is reached. Imperial Japan’s example is crucial in understanding how best to accomplish this. All means must be considered: treaties, alliances, sanctions, embargoes, asset freezes, shows of force, and war. 

The United States cannot shy from war and be perceived as the paper tiger that Imperial Japan saw it as before World War II. As former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Thomas Moorer said following Pearl Harbor, “The thing that impressed me the most was the psychological impact of being told, every minute, ‘Now don’t do anything to provoke the Japanese, whatever you do don’t do anything to provoke the Japanese – Commence firing!’”21  The United States cannot be imprisoned by the mind-set of peacetime, fearful of every step and utterance. Not every spark leads to fire. As the arbiter of international security, it also must be the enforcer. 

Contemporary China seeks to assert its claims of dominion in Asia and threatens to undermine the global system of alliances led by the United States and secured by the maritime superiority of the U.S. Navy. China also threatens established norms that have fomented global economic growth over the world’s oceans and provided a framework for the peaceful resolution of competing maritime claims. Using its experience with Imperial Japan as a reference, the U.S. Navy must arrest efforts to undermine the peaceful status quo in the Pacific and prevent China from following Japan’s perilous.

1. Andrew Gordon, A Modern History of Japan: From Tokugawa Times to the Present (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 72-73, 98.

2. Gordon, A Modern History of Japan, 73, 121.

3. H. P. Willmott, Empires in the Balance: Japanese and Allied Pacific Strategies to April 1942 (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1982), 29-30.

4. Ibid., 32.

5. Stephen Howarth, To Shining Sea: A History of the United States Navy, 1775-1998 (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1999), 339.

6. Ian W. Toll, Pacific Crucible: War at Sea in the Pacific, 1941-1942 (New York: W. W. Norton, 2012), 87.

7. Paul Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: Economic Change and Military Conflict from 1500 to 2000 (New York: Random House, 1987), 300.

8. Willmott, Empires in the Balance, 52.

9. Toll, Pacific Crucible, 116; Edward S. Miller, Bankrupting the Enemy: The U.S. Financial Siege of Japan before Pearl Harbor (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2007), 2.

10. W. David Dickson et al., On Seas Contested: The Seven Great Navies of the Second World War (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2014), 185-90.

11. RADM J. C. Wylie, USN, Military Strategy: A General Theory of Power Control (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2014), 24. From Admiral Wylie’s theories on strategy: “The sequential, the series of visible, discrete steps, each dependent on the one that preceded it. The other is the cumulative, the less perceptible minute accumulation of little items piling up on top of the other until at some unknown point the mass of accumulated actions may be large enough to be critical.”

12. Willmott, Empires in the Balance, 115.

13. Field-Marshal Viscount William Slim, Defeat Into Victory: Battling Japan in Burma and India, 1942-1945 (New York: Cooper Square Press, 2000), 526-27.

14. “China’s Contribution to the Global Economy,” China Daily, 16 January 2017. China has contributed roughly 30 percent of global GDP growth over the past decade despite being only 15 percent of Global GDP.

15. Howarth, To Shining Sea, 372.

16. LT Jeff Vandenengel, USN, “Too Big to Sink,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 143, no. 5 (May 2017). 

17. Willmott, Empires in the Balance, 113.

18. Dickson, On Seas Contested, 174, and Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of Great Powers, 301.

19. Willmott, Empires in the Balance, 107.

20. Ibid.

21. Howarth, To Shining Sea, 390-91.


Lieutenant Stefanus, a graduate of the Duke University NROTC program, is the training officer at Amphibious Squadron Six in Norfolk, VA. He previously served on the USS Anchorage (LPD-23). He won the Naval Institute’s General Prize Essay Contest for 2016.

Published: Tue Apr 03 14:03:47 EDT 2018