The Buzz

Would China Launch a "Pearl Harbor-Style" Strike on America?

If Imperial Japan’s past turns out to be a Rising China’s prologue, Beijing could well order a Pearl Harbor-style attack on America, possibly within a decade.  Potential targets range from American aircraft carriers in the Taiwan Strait and bombers on the runways of Okinawa and Guam to the military satellite network serving as the eyes and ears of the U.S. high command.  Even civilian infrastructure like America’s electricity grid may be at risk.

If you believe that prediction to be alarmist, consider these historical parallels with another rising Asian power during the early 20th century.

Imperial Japan claimed much of Asia by “divine right” and saw the region as a strategic source of food, natural resources, and markets. By December 7th, 1941, it occupied large swaths of China and French Indochina; all of Korea and Taiwan; and its highly capable military was primed to drive the British out of Borneo, Burma, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Malaya; the US out of the Philippines; and the Dutch from Indonesia.

Rising China similarly claims great chunks of Asia by “historical right” and likewise sees the resources and markets of Asia as vital to its growth. It already exercises great influence over Burma, Cambodia, and Laos to North Korea even as it subjugates Tibet and zealously asserts its sovereign right to the “renegade province” of Taiwan – one of Asia’s most vibrant democracies and home to more than 20 million people.

Rising China also asserts de jure sovereignty over 80% of the South China Sea – through which more than one third of global trade passes – and even claims the entire Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh as “Southern Tibet.” Perhaps most dangerous, Beijing’s government-controlled press has whipped its populace into a nationalist frenzy over Japanese control of the Senkaku Islands, which China calls the Diaoyu.

As with Imperial Japan, the only force standing in China’s expansionist way is an America committed to democracy, the rule of law, freedom of the seas, and defense of its Asian allies. Beijing’s clear fear is that America will do what it once did to Imperial Japan – impose a punishing naval embargo on its oil imports and global trade.

Here, it is well worth remembering America’s embargo of Imperial Japan did not result in the retreat of Japanese occupation forces as the U.S. demanded.  Rather, Tojo’s bombers simply – and infamously – struck Pearl Harbor. That Pentagon analysts openly talk today of “economic strangulation” should a belligerent China move on Taiwan, the Senkakus, or some other revanchist target only stokes Beijing’s fear.

Given Rising China’s revanchist dreams and U.S. embargo nightmare, it is hardly surprising the People’s Liberation Army is strategically designing its capabilities – so-called “anti-access, area denial” weapons – to push U.S. forces out of the Western Pacific. On this point too, history is likewise instructive.

Imperial Japan’s metamorphosis from an autarkic and backward kingdom to a global trading nation and world power began with the Meiji Restoration in 1860, which centralized the Japanese state even as it opened Japan’s military to an infusion of foreign technology.  As early as 1880, British and French shipyards began to churn out modern Japanese warships for what would become the most powerful fleet in Asia.