China: The New Imperial Japan?

January 3, 2017 Topic: Security Region: Asia Blog Brand: The Skeptics Tags: DefenseJapanWorld War IIChinaChinese MilitaryMilitaryTechnology

China: The New Imperial Japan?

The answer is no. But the reason why is what matters.

The Economic Order

A second structural variable is the prevailing international economic order as well as the local conditions of given states, here Japan and China. In the 1930s, the international economic order was collapsing and vital resources were ceasing to be effectively distributed through free trade. Since Japan was a small island nation mostly devoid of natural resources with a rapidly expanding population, the collapse of the economic order threatened its national well-being. American embargoes enacted in response to Japanese expansion further exacerbated this fear. If Japan could not trade for necessary resources, such as oil, how was it to acquire them? Further expansion into China and Southeast Asia was then the answer.

Today, the economic order, though challenged by the 2008 financial crisis, is not on the verge of collapsing. Neither is China a small island economy devoid of natural resources. China successfully imports raw materials from Australia, oil from the Middle East and Africa, and soybeans and cotton from the United States (to name just a few resources). The Chinese understand that the international economic order facilitated their rise, and Xi Jinping’s commitment to develop the economic potential of other nations, through such initiatives as One Belt One Road, expresses confidence in this order.

Domestic Political Factors

In the 1930s, Japan was run by “government by assassination”: those who acted against the military’s wishes would be eliminated. Japan’s first major foray into Manchuria in 1931 was directed by local army officers without the consent of the prime minister. Following reforms, the army and navy ministers could bring down a cabinet by resigning, effectively preventing civilian control of the government. As a result, no one leader was able to effectively govern Japan, and strategic and policy decisions were often made “in the field” by unqualified mid-ranking officers. In contrast, the central proposition of the Chinese government since Mao is that “the Party controls the gun.” Unauthorized military adventures—such as Japan’s expansion into Manchuria—are not plausible in contemporary China.

Motives for Expansion

From 1895–1941, Japan spent forty-five years expanding its territories, acquiring colonies, and conquering other peoples in the Pacific, China, Manchuria, Mongolia, Russia and Southeast Asia. In contrast, neither China’s leaders nor its military have expressed any interest whatsoever in annexing territory to which the nation has no historical claim. As Andrew Nathan and Andrew Scobell, two leading scholars of China, have observed:

All of China’s remaining unrealized territorial claims—the island of Taiwan, 45,000 square miles of territory in three parcels disputed with India, smaller border claims with other neighbors, and several sets of islands in the East and South China seas—are based on this history of one-time possession or exploration. In Beijing’s official rhetoric, maps, and history books, we see no signs of preparations to lodge claims to additional irridenta. In this sense, China is not an “expansionist” power with elastic territorial claims. Its claims appear fixed.

By contrast, Japanese expansion seemed limitless because the island nation had no natural stopping point. Every continental territory it acquired seemed to require a new buffer state to protect it; and after every conquest, one faction or another would advocate conquering somewhere else—e.g., the Army the Soviet Union, or the Navy Southeast Asia. There is no evidence whatsoever that the same expansionist urge defines Chinese policy today. Indeed, the fact that China has participated in no major war since 1979 and that historically China has not sought to expand into neighboring nation-states reinforces this.

International Society

In the 1930s, international society was the weakest it had been since the outbreak of the First World War. The United States was not a member of the League of Nations, leaving that institution relatively impotent. The USSR, which did join the league in 1934, was still excluded from international society, and until the last days of European peace was seen as a greater menace than even Nazi Germany. In 1933, Japan left the League of Nations in response to the league’s condemnation of its occupation of Manchuria, and in January 1936 it withdrew from the Washington System. Mussolini’s invasion of Abyssinia and the bloody civil war in Spain had made a mockery of international order, and Hitler, Stalin and the Japanese all desired to exploit the breakdown of order.

By contrast, today the UN is globally recognized as a legitimate institution to preserve peace. It is of course true that the UN has not been able to solve pressing international questions, such as the civil war in Syria, nonetheless it remains an important body for codifying international norms and coordinating opposition to international conquest. Were China to pursue the course of expansion Japan chose in the 1930s, it would be shamed in international society and excluded from the clubs and institutions it so desires to influence.

At the same time, nationalism, another component of contemporary international society, has made occupation of a foreign nation prohibitively costly. To understand the growing prominence of nationalism today, consider this. The United States spent ten times what its enemies spent in Vietnam, and achieved something of a stalemate; in Iraq, the United States spent 350 times what the insurgents spent, and lost. The kill ratio in the Vietnam conflict was four to one; in the Iraq conflict, two to one. The age of colonialism is over. Those who ignore this truth will be unpleasantly surprised.

Technological Changes

In the 1930s, after two decades of defensive dominance, the offensive had become predominant. Airplanes, aircraft carriers, submarines and tanks had interjected mobility into battlefronts that had before been dominated by trenches, barbed wire and battleships. Consequently, technology facilitated Hitler’s expansion into Europe, Mussolini’s into Africa, where Italy had been soundly defeated before, and Japan’s into China.

By contrast, today the defensive is increasingly dominant, particularly in East Asia. Cheap precision guided munitions, quiet submarines, and other A2/AD weapons and tactics give the defensive the advantage, raising the costs—with nationalism—for any offensive operation. Above and beyond this, nuclear weapons today prevent the conquest of any great power, and targeted proliferation could be promoted—in, say, Japan, South Korea, or Australia—to deter aggression.


For China’s contemporary behavior to match that of Japan in the 1930s, China would need to launch an invasion and occupation of a large neighboring country—say Indonesia—brutally murder its civilians and suppress its people, and then, in an act of seeming desperation, invade other neighboring countries, such as Vietnam or Japan. This scenario sounds so absurd because the analogy is inaccurate. Despite some similarities—dissatisfaction with the balance of power and incomplete integration into international society—the analogy does not hold because the similarities are vastly outweighed by the differences. Neither the global balance of power nor the global economic order is in the process of collapsing. China is not governed haphazardly and incoherently by militarists. The Middle Kingdom has no motive for expansion outside of its traditional territory (e.g., Taiwan), and even if it did, the costs imposed by international society, nationalism and the dominance of the defensive would render any such expansion impracticable.

The analogy between pre–World War II Japan and contemporary China does not hold, but there may yet be some useful lessons that can be derived from considering Japan’s earlier failed rise. China, like Japan, is not going to tolerate regional military inferiority to the United States if it can in any way help it. Similarly, China is likely to resent its partial exclusion from international society, as did Japan. Recognizing China as a great-power equal, negotiating a balance of power in East Asia—in place of the current American doctrine of primacy—and welcoming China into international society, even when this means decreasing American influence, are all likely to ease China into a peaceful rise. The alternative—a mounting arms race and global, zero-sum competition with China—is likely to fuel the paranoia, fear, instability and anger that so characterized the 1930s.

Jared McKinney is a non-resident fellow at the Pangoal Institution in Beijing and a PhD student in International Relations at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.

Image: Chinese navy multirole frigate Hengshui arrives at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam during Rim of the Pacific 2016. DVIDSHUB/Public domain