The Sun Also Rises

For the first time since 1942, Japan has resumed the strategic offensive. Since the beginning of the year, Japan has claimed the island of Takeshima, now occupied by South Korea; seized control of an area in the South China Sea also claimed by Beijing; and, most ominously, announced that Tokyo might intervene militarily to defend Taiwan.

Taiwan was Japanese from 1895 to 1945, a fact that neither the Chinese nor the Taiwanese have forgotten; if they had to choose, many Taiwanese would rather be governed from Tokyo than from Beijing.

I do not know what has motivated the Japanese government to resume the strategic offensive. I do know it is a mistake. Japan’s low-profile, defensive strategy has served her well for more than half a century. It is exactly the right strategy for a Fourth Generation 21st century, where survival will depend heavily on staying off other people’s hit lists. As in the 1930s and early ’40s, Japan shows an odd sense of timing.

The Takeshima issue offers an example. A divided Korea is very much in Japan’s interest. By laying claim to what is now Korean territory, Japan brings South and North Korea together. In fact, North Korea missed an opportunity. Had Pyongyang said that in the face of any Japanese claims, the armed forces of both Koreas were one in defending Korean soil, it would have scored a propaganda triumph.

While a united Korea would be no danger to the United States, it would be perhaps the most dangerous state threat to Japan. Even today, South Korea’s navy and air force are structured more for a war with Japan than for a conflict with North Korea. Any war with Japan, including an aggressive one, would be wildly popular with the Korean people. Asian memories run deep, and Japan’s current military weakness offers an opportunity that may not last forever (although given Japan’s demographics, it might).

Taking the offensive against China is an even greater blunder on Tokyo’s part. Here, the danger is less Chinese aggression than internal Chinese dissolution and the regional instability that would result. Any humiliation of China by Japan damages the legitimacy of the Beijing government. A Chinese defeat by Japan and America in a crisis over Taiwan could well bring that government down. Contrary to neocon blather, its likely successor would not be parliamentary democracy but a new "Period of Warring States" within China, which is to say Fourth Generation war throughout the most critical part of the Asian landmass. The resulting chaos would not be good for Japanese interests, especially if nukes started to fly. Putting a few on Japan would be an easy way for a Chinese contender to establish its patriotic credentials.

Predictably, the strategically imbecilic Bush administration is supporting Japan’s new offensive posture. In reality, with its military forces tied down in the Middle East, the last thing America needs is a new source of crises in East Asia. The mix there is already volatile enough; adding a Japan on the strategic offensive is the equivalent of smoking in the powder magazine.

American interests require that both China and Japan follow defensive strategies – as indeed they require the United States to follow a defensive strategy. China wants to do exactly that, knowing that time is on her side. Only the Taiwan question is likely to push here to take the offensive, which means we should let that sleeping dog lie. As for Tokyo, I suspect the new Japanese offensive would collapse quickly if Washington quietly signaled its disapproval. Without American support, any rising of the Japanese sun will quickly prove a mirage made of hot air.

All that is required is a morsel of strategic sense in Washington. Alas, that horizon remains blank.

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Author: William S. Lind

William Lind is director of the Center for Cultural Conservatism at the Free Congress Foundation. He is a former congressional aide and the author of many books and articles on military strategy and war.