Media  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2014.01.07

Imperial Japan and Communist China

JBPress on December 27, 2013

There are striking similarities between 1930s Japan and 2010s China: Two rising Asian powers with unhealthy nationalistic agendas and inferiority complexes vis-à-vis the West. Under virtually independent military command, they challenge the maritime hegemony of the United States in the Western Pacific with an ambition to control the sea lines of communication.

This is neither to claim that history is repeating itself in East Asia nor to assert that the Japanese and Chinese histories resemble each other. Despite many differences, however, the historical Imperial Japan and the current Communist China still seem to have much in common, as follows.

First is the nationalistic trauma caused by facing challenges from the West since the 19th century. In Japan at the end of the Edo period, the notorious American 'Black Ships' came out of the blue to Uraga Bay in 1853, ultimately leading to the open-door policy of the new Meiji government. In the case of China, however, it was much more tragic and complicated.

The Opium War with the British in 1840 forced China to give up Hong Kong, to open Canton and other Chinese ports and finally to start signing a series of unequal treaties with Western powers. Even more tragic is the fact that, even now, and unlike in Japan, the historical sense of humiliation has not been healed in the hearts and minds of both ordinary and elite Chinese citizens.

Second is nationalism in the military. In 1930s Japan it was the post-Great Depression poverty and unemployment that convinced the young 'best and brightest' military officers that social reform was inevitable. A subsequent series of coup attempts finally created a series of governments dominated by the military which misled the Japanese nation to historic disaster in 1945.

More importantly, the Japanese military took advantage of a constitutional defect. Article 11 of the 1889 Meiji Constitution of the Empire of Japan stipulated that "The Emperor has the supreme command of the Army and the Navy." The military interpreted this article as something that allowed them to enjoy an independent, Imperial chain of command, without reporting to the Prime Minister of Japan.

Chinese intellectuals may counter that the People's Liberation Army (PLA) is not Japan's Imperial Army or Navy. However, the 2004 New Historical Mission doctrine gave the PLA authority to defend China's national interests beyond territorial borders, and recently the unhealthily nationalistic voices among the PLA officers and generals are becoming increasingly ominous.

More inauspicious is the Chinese version of an independent chain of military command. The PLA does not report to the Chinese Prime Minister. It does not even report to the General Secretary of the Communist Party. It only reports to the Chairman of the Central Military Commission who happens to be the Party's General Secretary.

This is neither an issue of coincidence nor of politics. It is a matter of 'civilian control' of the armed forces, the lack of which led Japan to the 1945 fiasco. Western democracies make continuous efforts to keep their militaries out of politics. Civilian control has been one of the most important lessons learned by the Western democracies in the past century.

The recent episodes involving the PLA, such as the PLA naval vessels which "irresponsibly" harassed the USS Cowpens in the South China Sea or the establishment by the PLA Air Force of a more assertive ADIZ (Air Defense Identification Zone) over the East China Sea, cause many outside mainland China to worry about the effectiveness of civilian control of the PLA.

This is not to state that the current Communist China is making the same mistakes that the Imperial Japan of the 1930s made. The issue is not about colonization on the mainland. It is only about part of the Western Pacific and the air space above it. What is really at stake is the freedom of navigation on the high seas and of aviation there-above.

All in all, the fundamental questions are whether the Chinese Communist Party can:
- overcome the nationalistic trauma since 1840 and accept the existing regional order,
- control its own armed forces and deny them a nationalistic political orientation, and
- peacefully co-exist with its neighbors as Japan and the United States have done since 1945.

The decision is fundamentally in the hands of the Chinese people. Tokyo wholeheartedly welcomes them if they are willing to accept the international status quo. However, if they still wish to overcome the historical trauma by unilaterally changing the existing international order, that will be exactly when 21st century China will make the same mistakes that Japan made in the 1930s.