The Skeptics

China: The New Imperial Japan?

The centenary of World War I in 2014 provided the opportunity for scholars to reflect on parallels between the early twentieth-century Anglo-German rivalry and today’s developing Sino-American rivalry. There is much that must be learned from the road to war in 1914 if the statesmen of today are going to step off the road to Sino-American conflict. Other analogies have also been used in an attempt to understand China’s rise, and I have considered some of these elsewhere.

Yet there is another analogy, which has not yet received the examination it deserves: is contemporary China following in the footsteps of the Japan of the 1930s? Is today’s China bent on expansion like the aggressive Japan that started the Pacific War? This analogy has not received much press—for three reasons.

First, those who are wont to make such comparisons (like former Philippine president Benigno Aquino) tend prefer to default to the Hitler analogy, presumably for the intellectual pull it can exert on Americans always fearing another Munich. Second, given that the current prime minister of Japan, Shinzo Abe, disputes that Japan was responsible for the war (who is he to attempt to define aggression, he asks), bringing up such a sensitive issue is not smart politics for those who desire closer relations with Japan today to contain China. Finally, the academic scholarship on the causes of the Pacific War is much less comprehensive than the corresponding work on World War I and World War II in Europe. Indeed, the number of books based on primary sources explaining the road to Japanese-American conflict published in the last two decades can be counted on one hand.

Given that one possible date for the beginning of the Pacific War is 1937 (the other is the Pearl Harbor attack of 1941), 2017, the eightieth anniversary of that start, is an apt time to reconsider the war’s causes and to compare Japan’s condition then with China’s today. The simplest way to examine the applicability of the analogy is to list the similarities and the differences, and so that is how we shall proceed.


Two similarities between Japan’s geopolitical position in the 1930s and China’s position today immediately come to mind. The first is that both countries expressed dissatisfaction with the military balance of power. The second is that both nations, to varying degrees, felt excluded from international society.

The Balance of Power

In the 1930s, Japan was locked into the so-called Washington System of arms control, which mandated Japanese naval inferiority at certain specified rates (under the 1922 Treaty: 60 percent of American and British strength; under the 1930 Treaty, close to 70 percent). These ratios had been carefully formulated with the intention of preventing aggressive Japanese moves in the Pacific while likewise preventing American or British challenges to Japan’s regional sea control. Even so, many Japanese naval officers decried the limits, seeing them as a way to perpetuate Japanese inferiority. The breakdown of the Washington System in the 1930s led to an arms race between Japan and the United States, and was one of the contributing factors to the outbreak of war between the two nations in 1941.

Today, China is dissatisfied with East Asia’s regional balance of power, which since World War II has been based on American primacy. As former secretary of defense Robert Gates remarked in 2012, the Pacific had “for all practical purposes been an American lake for our navy since the end of World War II.” In the last two decades, China has made tremendous investments in its military capabilities in order to challenge American primacy. China’s challenge has led to increased tensions with a United States determined to hold on to its primacy. In response, the United States has positioned greater forces in the Pacific and developed escalatory plans like Air-Sea Battle (now renamed something innocuous, in an apparent effort to avoid attention). The outcome is a burgeoning arms race between the two nations.

International Society