Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere Redux? (Part Two)

In Economics on June 22, 2010 by Filmosaur Tagged: , , , ,

As noted in Part One of this topic, the rise of China as well as other powers in the western Pacific and Indian Oceans has sufficiently compelling parallels to the rise of Imperial Japan in the first half of the 20th Century that it may be instructive to revisit Japan’s ascent to power, culminating in its drive toward a regional maritime empire it euphemistically called the Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere. This entity did not simply spring from the minds of Japan’s leadership, but was in fact heavily influenced by outside thought and experience, especially of and with the two predominant maritime powers of the era: Great Britain and the United States. In particular, the work of U.S. naval officer Alfred Thayer Mahan is known to have provided much of inspiration behind the Japanese strategy underpinning its rise to power. That Mahan’s ideas are gaining traction with the strategic planners of today’s rising Asian powers lends further credence to the relevance of Japan’s example.

Japan was introduced to Mahan’s seminal work with its translation into Japanese in 1896; many of his later works were translated as well. Mahan’s book was viewed as a blueprint for national greatness through naval expansion, with a battleship fleet providing the means to secure the colonies, bases, and lines of communication necessary to achieve this triumph. Indeed, this is largely what Mahan had intended, though his intended audience clearly was not Japan; the United States had begun to look outward for a variety of reasons – the closing of the frontier, domestic overproduction, concerns over European imperialism – and Mahan felt it must not merely look, but take a sufficiently active position as to be able to develop its commercial interests, and to create a fleet strong enough to protect them. The Japanese were impressed by arguments that seemed to apply as much to their own situation as to America’s, even though Mahan would have argued against this assertion. Key officers in the Japanese Navy were sent to Britain and the United States to study the new ideas underpinning what came to be known as navalism, and they returned to Japan to instruct their fellow officers through lectures and books of their own. These officers thus spread the gospel of Mahan not only to much of the naval officer corps, but to members of the government, industry and other influential citizens, inexorably intertwining Mahan with the general arguments in favor of expansion and naval procurement.

The First World War brought another important lesson that dovetailed nicely with the Japanese interpretation of Mahan’s teachings. In a long war, economic warfare could prove vital; the experiences of Great Britain and Germany showed that naval blockades, whether using traditional methods of boarding and inspecting merchant vessels for contraband or attacking them directly using a combination of open-sea raiders and the highly effective new technology of the submarine, could have a significant, if not decisive, impact on the outcome. Germany’s severe shortages of warmaking material, consumer commodities and foodstuffs by 1918, and Britain and France’s utter reliance on support from the U.S. as the war dragged on, demonstrated beyond a doubt to Japanese planners that only self-sufficient nations could hope to survive in the worst case scenario of a long war without proximate allies. Autarky became a vital element of Japanese industrial policy, but it was acknowledged that Japan – a nation hopelessly poor in most industrial commodities – could not achieve this without an overseas empire.

It is unsurprising then that the growth of the Japanese economy based on its industrial strength and its exports was concurrent with greater calls for measures to ensure continued economic development and security. What was needed to attain this seemed to be clear: acquiring productive resource-rich colonies, gaining control of key strategic positions to protect them, and building a navy strong enough to secure both. The 1922 Five-Power Naval Treaty that emerged from the Washington Conference, with its restrictions on Japan’s fleet building, was acquiesced to in no small part because the United States agreed to a nonfortification clause that gave Japan de facto control of the western Pacific. Despite concerns among some in Japan that the restrictions on fleet building would compromise her security, the Five-Power Treaty must be considered far more beneficial to Japan’s security interests than those of the United States, her principal rival in the Pacific. This may be evidenced by the fact that U.S. naval officers denounced the treaty as having undermined their service’s global mission (as defined by Mahan); U.S. Navy planners spent the rest of the decade working on ways to resolve the problem of war with Japan (considered a strong possibility since the beginning of the century) in light of the new limitations.

The ability to act as the dominant regional power in the western Pacific gave Japan the chance to begin the process of imperial acquisition. Beginning with the taking of Manchuria in 1931, and already controlling the important Korean peninsula and numerous islands in the southwestern Pacific (gained at Germany’s expense during the First World War, and tellingly identified by Mahan at that time as posing a serious concern to U.S. Pacific interests), Japanese policymakers, increasingly influenced by the competing leadership of the Army and the Navy, moved toward what they believed to be the Mahanian-dictated path to national greatness.

Yet it failed; Japan did not develop the increasingly stable, prosperous and defensible empire that it sought. Instead, the problem of securing resources sufficient to meet both industrial demands and the construction and operational requirements of the increasingly large naval contingent meant that Japan became increasingly desperate as its leaders realized that gaining the territory required to attain self-sufficiency would generate active opposition from Japan’s main trading partner and rival, the United States. The embargoes and financial measures taken by the U.S. in the years before Pearl Harbor reinforced the perceived requirement for creating an autarkic Japanese empire while making it harder to achieve, as the needs of the navy for steel and oil continued to increase as the U.S. threat loomed larger. American restrictions on petroleum and steel exports – put in place to protest Japanese actions in China – pushed the Japanese toward a point at which supplies of these vital commodities would run out, long before imperial territory could be extended and exploited to make up the shortfall. Rather than wait for the inevitable, the Japanese struck out for oil reserves of the Dutch East Indies, while following Mahan’s doctrine of decisive battle by concurrently attempting to knock out the only forces that could stop them, and the bases from which they would operate: the Royal Navy at Singapore, the “Gibraltar of the Pacific,” and the United States Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, along with U.S. bases in the Philippines.

What went wrong? Simply put, Japan’s reading of Mahan was flawed. Japan’s devotees of Mahan’s ideas believed that a maritime empire and a strong navy were the keys to survival because they allowed the imperial power to control the resources it needed to succeed; they saw the global dominance of the British Empire demonstrated in The Influence of Sea Power upon History as an irrefutable example of this. Yet Mahan’s argument was as much about British success as it was about French failure; failure to concentrate on a maritime policy, failure to recognize the meaning of British commercial and naval strength, failure to see the dangers inherent in concentrating on the Continent. The Japanese would have done well to consider this.

While Britain was forced to be a maritime power by geography, France had a choice; in Mahan’s view, it was so indecisive in this as to give Britain de facto control over the vital seas while rendering itself unnecessarily vulnerable to commercial isolation and military impotence against its primary rival. Where Britain’s empire was remote and diffuse and her main rival close, Japan sought a regional empire and faced a distant rival; while this might seem to offer greater security, in fact the inability to restrain the United States by bottling up its merchant shipping and naval forces as Britain had those of France meant that Japan would face a far greater challenge, as Britain did in those instances where France’s navy was met in open seas rather than confined to its ports.

Britain’s maritime power was based on a large and active commercial fleet that provided what Mahan considered a necessary pre-condition for naval power; both Mahan’s France and Imperial Japan had far smaller commercial fleets, a condition that would contribute to the precariousness of their respective strategic positions rather than provide support for the navies needed to protect them. An array of sources for imports and markets for exports, within the Empire and without, gave Britain a commercial advantage that neither France nor Japan came close to matching. American sanctions against Japan further reduced her already limited commercial potential, further weakening the foundation on which her navy was being constructed, as no viable imperial alternative to this trade existed.

The considerably reduced material and technical requirements for the construction of wooden sailing ships when compared with 20th vessels meant that neither France nor Britain faced the severe problems encountered by the Japanese navy in constructing their fleet. While it is true that Mahan’s turn of the century American audience also had to meet the needs of modern technology, the U.S. had more than adequate supplies of the industrial commodities necessary, rendering the earlier conditions of the two European powers far more relevant than they were to Japan, to which fleet construction became a strategic objective itself, reversing Mahan’s order and perverting his logic.

Britain needed to commit few resources to her army, as the presence of the Royal Navy, the “wooden walls of Britain,” rendered Britain secure regardless of the size of the armies of her Great Power rivals, while France was forced to face them on the Continent; by the time Japan sought her empire, she too was forced to face the Great Powers not only at sea but on land, as well as the comparatively limitless manpower of Great Power-supported China, if she hoped to gain the territory she needed.

In short, despite outward appearances and the perceived universality of the doctrines espoused in The Influence of Sea Power upon History, Japan met few of the criteria set out by Mahan. Thus when it set out to construct a maritime empire, an act which would necessarily challenge the United States – a nation far better suited to succeed in attaining Mahan’s vision of global strength – it did so with a deeply flawed strategy that misunderstood the tenets of one of its primary influences. In light of this, the outcome was hardly surprising.

The objective of the final part of this discussion will be to identify the relevance of Mahan’s ideas to the situation in East Asia today, and specifically to determine if the rising powers there – primarily China, but also India – are similarly misinterpreting these ideas, and what this in turn means for the United States and other powers that will be forced to accommodate or confront these powers.

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