75 years after Pearl Harbor, Beijing may be in position for Pacific pivot

By John J. Metzler, UNITED NATIONS

UNITED NATIONS — On Dec. 7, 1941, the United States was shocked and stunned from its nervous neutrality and thrust into the crucible of the Second World War. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor instantly changed the narrative for American involvement in WWII which had already been raging in both in East Asia and in Europe.

Let’s not forget that by 1941, a full decade earlier Japan had begun to dismember China; first in Manchuria in 1931 and then the wider expansion after July 1937. For a long time, Nationalist China staunchly fought alone against Tokyo’s powerful and modernized military machine. In Europe, Hitler and Stalin’s perfidious deal to divide Poland led to the attack in September 1939, formally starting the war in Europe. But by December 1941, France and the Netherlands, not to mention a dozen other countries were occupied by the Nazi Blitzkrieg. Britain was under assault, Hitler had attacked the Soviet Union the previous June.

While the USA saw the clouds of war approaching — and was indeed finally rebuilding its military power — the assumption was somehow through chosen isolationism we would have the time, and the option to choose when to formally enter the fight. Indeed, part of the underlying presumption proved so horribly wrong was that “it couldn’t happen here.”

Pearl Harbor in Hawaii was too far from a belligerent Japan and “obviously” Tokyo did not have the sea power to decisively project a carrier battle group such a distance undetected. Moreover the “blue water” Navy types could not imagine of the technological prowess and spirit of the Japanese Navy. This proved a terrible and near catastrophic miscalculation.

But Tokyo made a bigger mistake: Admiral Yamamoto, the reluctant if dedicated architect of the Pearl Harbor attack, was said to remark, “I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve.” The attack drew America into the war as a fearsome adversary.

When the Day of Infamy dawned on Dec. 7, America was dragged into a bitter reality which had befallen China and Europe. What President Franklin D. Roosevelt would call the “arsenal of democracy,” as well as the tireless efforts of the “Greatest Generation” would turn the near impossible tide from defeat to victory and later to reconciliation in both the Pacific and in Europe. Japan’s current Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will soon visit Hawaii as a profound gesture of both remorse and reconciliation for the actions of Japan’s earlier generation of 75 years ago.

Sept. 11, 2001 was this generation’s Pearl Harbor. But as I have often written, the key difference was that at Pearl Harbor the attacking aircraft bore the symbol of the rising sun, and the aggressor was clearly Imperial Japan. In 2001, the attack from the al-Qaida terrorists did not come from a formal state, nor did they have a return address. The counterattack against al-Qaida terrorism continues in the shadows across the Middle East. Let’s fast forward to the contemporary era. East Asia faces a growing geopolitical challenge from the People’s Republic of China. Beijing’s economic power and huge trade surpluses in hard currency has allowed the People’s Republic a significant qualitative expansion of its military and intelligence capabilities.