Seventy-five years after the ‘day of infamy,’ a new challenge from the Far East

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metzlerBy John J. Metzler

UNITED NATIONS — On December 7, 1941, the United States was shocked and stunned from its nervous neutrality and thrust into the crucible of the Second World War.

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor instantly changed the narrative for American involvement in WWII which had already been raging in both in East Asia and in Europe.

Let’s not forget that a full decade earlier Japan had begun to dismember China; first in Manchuria in 1931 and then the wider expansion after July 1937. For a long time Nationalist China staunchly fought alone against Tokyo’s powerful and modernized military machine.

warIn Europe Hitler and Stalin’s perfidious deal to divide Poland led to the attack in September 1939, formally starting the War in Europe. But by December 1941, France and the Netherlands, not to mention a dozen other countries were occupied by the Nazi Blitzkrieg. Britain was under assault, Hitler had attacked the Soviet Union the previous June.

While the USA saw the clouds of war approaching, and was indeed finally rebuilding its military power, the assumption was somehow through chosen isolationism we would have the time, and the option to choose when to formally enter the fight. Indeed part of the underlying presumption which proved so horribly wrong was that “it couldn’t happen here.”

Pearl Harbor in Hawaii was too far from a belligerent Japan and “obviously” Tokyo did not have the sea power to decisively project a carrier battle group such a distance undetected. Moreover the “blue water” Navy types could not imagine the technological prowess and spirit of the Japanese Navy. This proved a terrible and near catastrophic miscalculation.

But Tokyo made a bigger mistake: Adm. Yamamoto, the reluctant if dedicated architect of the Pearl Harbor attack, was said to remark, “I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve.” The attack drew America into the war as a fearsome adversary.

When the Day of Infamy dawned on December 7th, America was dragged into a bitter reality which had befallen China and Europe. What President Franklin D. Roosevelt would call the Arsenal of Democracy, as well as the tireless efforts of the Greatest Generation would turn the near impossible tide from defeat to victory and later to reconciliation in both the Pacific and in Europe.

Japan’s current Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will soon visit Hawaii as a profound gesture of both remorse and reconciliation for the actions of Japan’s earlier generation of 75 years ago.

September 11th, 2001, became this generation’s Pearl Harbor.

But as I have often written, the key difference was that at Pearl Harbor the attacking aircraft bore the symbol of the Rising Sun and the aggressor was clearly Imperial Japan.

In 2001, the attack from the Al Qaida terrorists did not come from a formal State nor did they have a return address. The counterattack against Al Qaida terrorism continues in the shadows across the Middle East.

Let’s fast forward to the contemporary era. East Asia faces a growing geopolitical challenge from the People’s Republic of China. Beijing’s economic power and huge trade surpluses in hard currency has allowed the People’s Republic a significant qualitative expansion of its military and intelligence capabilities.

Though Beijing’s paramount ruler Xi Jinxing stands at the helm of an officially communist China, it’s intense high octane nationalism, combined with a underpinning sense of victimhood, underscores the PRC’s political mantra. Here are a few regional concerns.

  • First, the simmering island dispute in the Diaoyutai/Senkaku islands between China and Japan remains one such flashpoint.
  • Secondly, there’s China’s territorial designs over the South China Sea and a swath of disputed islets, reefs and now artificially constructed islands. China is claiming sovereignty in an area which overlaps the claims of six sovereign states. Moreover these waters serve as a sea lane of communication and key transit point for both commerce and energy supplies. China’s maritime moves in the South China Sea evoke what Mussolini called Mare Nostrum “Our Sea,” a historically self-righteous near messianic view to rationalize expansion.
  • Third, the People’ Republic of China has never renounced the use of force against a democratic Taiwan which it regards as an “renegade province,” and a core political concern.

Seventy-five years after Pearl Harbor and on the cusp of a new U.S. Administration, the PRC may be willing to probe and test the regional waters in the Pacific. With the approaching 19th Chinese Communist Party Congress later this year, Xi Jinxing may play a tougher game.

John J. Metzler is a United Nations correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He is the author of Divided Dynamism the Diplomacy of Separated Nations: Germany, Korea, China (2014). [See pre-2011 Archives]