What History Says about China's Chances in a War with America

"If it's possible for the weaker contender to play a weak hand wisely, it's also possible for the strong to play a strong hand foolishly."

"TOKYO, July 31, 1894 -- 'For the foreseeable future,' declares an American defense expert, 'no rational Japanese naval planner could present a plan to defeat the Chinese navy, even in the Yellow Sea.' Why say such a thing? Because it stands to reason. Japan has been a modern industrial nation only since the Meiji Restoration of 1868-1869. That's under three decades.

"And after centuries of self-imposed seclusion, Japan has no seafaring tradition to speak of. Its navy? Posh. The Imperial Japanese Navy (INJ) got its start as an ironclad fleet only 25 years ago, when it took custody of the French-built ram Stonewall. CSS Stonewall was a hand-me-down from that notable naval power, the Confederate States of America.

"These are sketchy beginnings. Tokyo has had too little time to overcome them. The hodgepodge IJN fleet would stand little chance against a bigger, better-funded Qing Dynasty navy that -- unlike its Japanese nemesis -- possesses battleships. And battleships are the arbiters of naval warfare."

***

"TOKYO, April 17, 1895 -- Today the Chinese and Japanese imperial governments signed the Treaty of Shimonoseki, ending the limited war that broke out last August. Under the treaty's terms the Qing government relinquishes its suzerainty over Korea, cedes Formosa, the Penghu Islands group, and the Liaotung Peninsula to Japan, and opens new treaty ports to Japan on a most-favored-nation basis.

"But the treaty's impact goes well beyond that. Foreign commentators see Shimonoseki as signifying Japan's arrival as Asia's preeminent power. This limited war, in short, transformed the regional order.

"How? The crucial event in this Sino-Japanese War was last September's Battle of the Yalu, off the Korean west coast. That's where the IJN Combined Fleet met and crushed the Qing navy's Beiyang Fleet -- defying prewar estimates of the naval balance."

***

The foregoing is fictionalized news analysis, but it captures the state of expert opinion about the military balance on the eve of the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895, and at the peace settlement that followed. Few observers thought Japan's navy could win, and they gave good reasons for reaching such a verdict. They also happened to be wrong. Glaringly so.

History abounds with such failures. The opening quotation from an unnamed military expert is a slight twist on Kennedy School professor (and former Pentagon official) Graham Allison's recent claim that the U.S. military is and will remain unbeatable in Asia -- even on China's home turf -- into the indefinite future. Only the irrational could think otherwise, saith Allison. Yes, you read that right. Herewith, three lessons from 1895 that suggest otherwise:

Lesson #1: People Devise Widgets

Human beings design hardware, and the tradeoffs they make at the drawing board can have colossal import. Look at it this way. The three basic attributes of any warship are speed, protection, and armament. If shipbuilders want a lot of one attribute, they typically end up sacrificing along one or both of the other axes. A heavy missile loadout, for instance, adds weight to a hull. Weight slows down the ship, requiring designers to compensate by subtracting armor, adding bigger, more expensive engines, or both. Slow, stoutly armored, and heavily armed, or fleet-of-foot with lighter or fewer weapons? Navies invariably strike such compromises.

There's no free lunch in naval architecture. Take a modern example, the U.S. Navy's Littoral Combat Ship. The founders of the LCS project mandated a whole lot of sprint speed. That meant not just sporty engines but lightweight construction and limited armament. Indeed, one of the LCS classes is built entirely of aluminum, not the sturdiest material for withstanding battle damage. If speed is all-important, you give up protection and weaponry. All ship designs involve choices. Seafarers may not discover the repercussions of those choices until they're in the thick of combat.

Now flash back to fin de siècle Asia again. Like many navalists of the day, Chinese naval officials and their foreign advisers saw battleships as the coin of the realm. They prized thick armor -- protection -- over speed and firepower. China's German-built battlewagons boasted heavier guns than IJN men-of-war, but with a slower rate of fire. And because of their steep cost, there were only two of them in the Beiyang Fleet, the formation that fought at the Yalu. Japanese designers, by contrast, rated speed, maneuverability, and rapid-fire gunnery above protection and major-caliber guns.

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