The Chinese Navy Will Never Forget Its Defeats to Japan
It is far from a foregone conclusion that China would steamroll Japan in a new trial of arms.
Here's What You Need To Remember: That’s because September 17, 1894, was a dark day for dynastic China. A Japanese fleet cobbled together from secondhand boilers and other components with foreign help crushed the Qing Dynasty’s Beiyang (Northern) Fleet off the Korean west coast. Naval experts of the day rated the Qing force superior to its opponent, so the encounter administered a rude shock all around. In fact, defeat at the Battle of the Yalu is central to China’s “century of humiliation.”
The Pentagon proclaims that an age of long-term strategic competition among great powers is upon us. How long is long, though?
Very long, maybe. To see why, juxtapose two anniversaries that fell during this year, both of equal moment for contemporary Asia. Communist China ballyhooed the first, the 70th anniversary of its founding on October 1, 1949, in part by sending an arsenal of high-tech weaponry rumbling through the streets of Beijing. The hoopla obscured the second anniversary, which came just a couple of weeks before—namely the 125th anniversary of the first Sino-Japanese War.
Communist officialdom is less eager to trumpet that one. That’s because September 17, 1894, was a dark day for dynastic China. A Japanese fleet cobbled together from secondhand boilers and other components with foreign help crushed the Qing Dynasty’s Beiyang (Northern) Fleet off the Korean west coast. Naval experts of the day rated the Qing force superior to its opponent, so the encounter administered a rude shock all around. In fact, defeat at the Battle of the Yalu is central to China’s “century of humiliation.”
Banishing painful memories from the century of humiliation is inseparable from the “Chinese Dream,” President Xi Jinping’s project for making China great again. Losing to imperial navies such Great Britain’s Royal Navy, as imperial China did time after time during the 19th century, was bad enough. Losing to upstart Japan—a lesser Asian competitor that had secluded itself from the region and the world for a quarter-millennium, emerging only in the 1860s—was worse in Chinese eyes.
China must turn the world right-side up again to make Xi’s dream of great power come true.
But there was more to the debacle off Korea than dishonor, cringeworthy though the battle’s results were. As my colleague Professor Sally Paine attests, Japan’s limited military victory in the Sino-Japanese War carried unlimited geopolitical repercussions. Japan made itself Asia’s foremost naval and military power. It then ran roughshod over Asia and the Pacific for the next half-century—making short work of the Russian Navy in 1904-1905, conquering territory across continental Asia, and giving Allied forces all they could handle in World War II.
In a day’s fighting, then, the Imperial Japanese Navy upended the region’s Sinocentric pecking order. In turn, the Sino-Japanese War set in motion a maritime strategic contest—sometimes peaceful, sometimes not—that persists to this day. One hundred twenty-five years: that’s what you call long-term strategic competition.
And it is far from over. In effect, Communist China wants to repeal the outcome of the Battle of the Yalu in order to certify its stature as Asia’s predominant geopolitical force and a global sea power of note. In its nondescript way, democratic Japan would like to reaffirm its primacy. Ever since 1895, writes Paine, “the focus of Chinese foreign policy has been to undo [the war’s] results whereas the focus of Japanese foreign policy has been to confirm them.”
Martial sage Carl von Clausewitz would nod knowingly at this perpetual-motion cycle of competition and conflict. “Even the ultimate outcome of a war,” maintains Clausewitz, “is not always to be regarded as final. The defeated state often considers the outcome merely as a transitory evil, for which a remedy may still be found in political conditions at some later date.” He knew whereof he spoke, having taken part in decades of recurrent warfare against Revolutionary and Napoleonic France.
Seems the old military maxim holds true: no war is over until the vanquished agree it’s over. The same goes for strategic competition. Post-Napoleonic France never got over its thirst for lost grandeur. Thankfully, it also never marched Europe over the precipice again in its quest to renew national greatness.
So, it seems, memories run long in societies that once knew martial and diplomatic preeminence and lost it. On a subterranean level the Sino-Japanese War and century of humiliation must help account for this year’s showmanship in Beijing and other precincts. Party prelates want to impress not just on the Chinese people but also on foreign audiences—including Japanese—that China is back in a big way.
Still, never surrender to hype made in Communist China. The People’s Liberation Army does not field invincible forces operated by martial supergeniuses. It fields impressive but beatable forces operated by fallible human beings. It is far from a foregone conclusion that China would steamroll Japan in a new trial of arms.
Think about the balance of military might. Japan not only deploys a compact but world-class navy, styled a Maritime Self-Defense Force, but is allied to the United States, which operates the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps—the predominant seagoing force of the age. Yokosuka and Sasebo play home to the U.S. Seventh Fleet, an armada centered on an aircraft-carrier strike group and robust amphibious forces. So long as Tokyo and Washington keep their friendship strong, there will be no more one-on-one fights for mastery of Pacific waters. Any fight will embroil America.
The allies must broadcast a message of solidarity early and often, and back up their message with military exercises to prove they can make good on forceful words. They must show that Japanese and U.S. maritime forces comprise a single keen-edged implement wielded by a resolute, indivisible alliance. Metaphor alert: the news broke recently that amphibious aircraft carrier USS America is headed for Japan, complete with F-35 stealth fighter/attack aircraft to augment allied air power. The vessel will call Sasebo home.
America goes to Japan!
There U.S. forces must stay, reminding all parties to the competition that America has skin in the game. Neither Beijing nor Tokyo appears willing to relinquish its claims to primacy in Asia. Neither appears able to overpower the other without fearful consequences. It is doubtful, consequently, that the Sino-Japanese competition will end any time soon—either in humbling defeat or tidings of everlasting victory for Tokyo or Beijing. As the shade of Clausewitz might counsel, this is a long-term strategic competition in which each contender interprets setbacks as temporary evils to be redressed at some later date.
Like all such rivalries, the Sino-Japanese rivalry will be punctuated by moments of triumph and tribulation as the pugilists grapple for strategic advantage. So it has been for the past 125 years. So, in all likelihood, shall it remain for the coming years if not decades. Better settle in.
James Holmes is J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and the author of A Brief Guide to Maritime Strategy, due out Sunday. The views voiced here are his alone.
This article first appeared in 2019 and is being republished due to reader interest.