What Do China's Military Strategists Think of the Battle of Midway?

Aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson transits the East China Sea. Flickr/U.S. Navy

China likely recognizes that once wars are started with America, even when militarily successful, they may be extremely difficult to end.

Late springtime is a fitting time to contemplate the origins of U.S. maritime supremacy. Over a period of about twenty-four hours in June 1942, U.S. naval aviators turned the whole course of history by putting the Imperial Japanese Navy’s four premier flattops on the bottom. This victory can be attributed in roughly equal parts to strategic acumen, code-breaking genius, dive-bombing technology, precision training and luck, as well as no small amount of valor and sacrifice.

To take but one example, consider Lt. Cdr. Lance Edward “Lem” Massey. A native of Syracuse, New York, he graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1930. He had the extraordinary distinction of leading the very first aerial torpedo attack in U.S. Navy history, as his squadron struck an early blow against the sweeping tide of Japanese victories near the Kwajalein Atoll in February 1942. On that fateful June 4 morning, he boldly led his squadron into the maelstrom of the Midway battle, charging in to attack the Japanese carrier Hiryu. “[Another U.S. pilot] . . . saw the skipper’s plane erupt into a big ball of flame. Massey stood up in his open cockpit, with one foot on the stub wing and the other on the seat, as his TBD [Avenger] dropped toward the water 250 feet below. The skipper did not have the altitude to survive the jump from his flaming wreck.” Of course, those familiar with this battle know well that the torpedo-laden Avengers’ sacrifice was not in vain as they successfully diverted the Japanese carriers’ fighter cover, allowing the U.S. Devastator dive bombers a clear path to wreak their fury against the crown jewels of the Japanese Navy—a sweet revenge for the Pearl Harbor attack some six months prior.

Today, on the other side of the Pacific, the Midway battle seems to have become a rather hot study topic in contemporary Chinese naval circles. Maybe this is not particularly surprising given that Beijing has just launched its second aircraft carrier and is thought to be hard at work on the third. A long article in the Chinese naval magazine Modern Ships [现代舰船] published by the enormous ship-building conglomerate CSIC, is especially interesting. The focus of the piece, entitled “The Road to Midway Island” [通向中途岛之路] does not take up the tactics, the technologies, nor the heroism involved, but undertakes a strictly disciplined examination of the planning choices made by the Japanese military leadership during the spring of 1942. Thus, among the ingredients that produced the miracle at Midway, this Chinese analysis is focused on “strategic acumen,” or lack thereof, and how Tokyo squandered such a militarily favorable position so quickly.

The analysis begins by making the point that Tokyo’s rapid conquest of all of Southeast Asia had come at a startlingly low cost. Victory had come so easily [赢得这些胜利是如此地轻而易举] and the obvious natural question was “What next?” [下一步 . . . 怎么半]. In March 1942, the Japanese Navy was said to be examining two vectors of attack: either south to Australia or north to the Aleutians. The Japanese Navy’s chief planner and mastermind of the Pearl Harbor attack, Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto, has apparently also ordered an investigation of the feasibility for an invasion of Hawaii. Curiously, the Japanese Navy set off at that time on another project altogether deep in the Indian Ocean: Ceylon [锡兰] or Sri Lanka. As this analysis outlines, Tokyo’s goals in the Indian Ocean were not completely far-fetched. The Japanese Navy’s surge toward India was intended to menace Britain, perhaps even encouraging the people of the Raj to rise up against their colonial masters, while simultaneously impressing Germany and presenting the real possibility of the Axis powers jointly carving up the oil-rich Persian Gulf. The invasion of Australia was never seriously contemplated in Tokyo, according to this analysis, since such a campaign was evaluated to require at least two hundred thousand troops, as well as a third of Japan’s sparse shipping resources. The Chinese author notes that the Japanese Army had no interest in supporting the Japanese Navy with various operation around the Asia-Pacific region, because Tokyo’s ground forces remained obsessed with campaigns on the Asian mainland with their sites fixated, in particular, on the conquest of Siberia [西伯利亚]. While the Japanese Navy recognized that an invasion of Hawaii would eliminate America’s most important strong point in the Pacific and greatly hinder its opportunities to strike at Japan, this author emphasizes the problems posed by the “passive . . . uncooperative attitude” [消极 . . . 不合作态度] of the Japanese Army that was unwilling to play a “supporting role” [当配角].