Rule the Sea, Build Alliances, and Sweat the Small Stuff

Why Tokyo and Beijing are still fighting a war that began in 1894.

Soe Than WIN/AFP/Getty Images
Soe Than WIN/AFP/Getty Images

With all eyes locked on Iraq and Ukraine, China and Japan keep ratcheting up tensions over islands and waters in the East China Sea. On June 11, two Japanese planes flew dangerously close to a Chinese plane — with both sides blaming the other for the encounter. This follows an incident in late May, when armed Chinese fighter planes buzzed Japanese maritime patrol aircraft, passing within 100 feet in one case — a hand’s breadth for high-speed aircraft. In mid-June, China Defense Ministry spokesman Col. Geng Yansheng blustered that Japanese airmen have “engaged in close-up tailing” of Chinese aircraft, revealing Tokyo’s “malign intentions” and exposing its “hypocrisy and two-facedness in relations with China.”

Minor encounters such as these can explode into major problems between nations, and a clash of the Asian titans is far from unthinkable. And perhaps it’s no coincidence that this year marks the 120th anniversary of the conflict that started it all: the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895. That’s when a makeshift Japanese navy crushed China’s, allowing Imperial Japan to wrest land and a boatload of cash from China’s Qing Dynasty.

Strategists across East Asia are investigating that long-ago conflict for lessons relevant to today’s controversies. The first lesson is geopolitical: that limited conflicts can deliver sweeping gains. The 1894 Battle of Yalu — a minor duel between Chinese and Japanese battle fleets — gave Japan command of the Yellow and East China seas. The Treaty of Shimonoseki, signed in Japan in April 1895, compelled China’s rulers to relinquish Taiwan and its outlying islands, territory along the Asian coast, and to pay a massive indemnity to Japan. No longer could China oppose Japanese military movement up and down the Asian seaboard. With maritime command, then, came dominance of Northeast Asia.

Beijing would like to reset the terms of this geopolitical status quo. Indeed, as my colleague Sally Paine noted in her masterful 2002 history of this half-forgotten war, ever since 1895 “the focus of Chinese foreign policy has been to undo its results whereas the focus of Japanese foreign policy has been to confirm them.” Seems the old military maxim holds true: no war is over until the vanquished agree it’s over.

While the Senkaku/Diaoyu — the tiny islands in the East China Sea that are the locus of today’s conflict — weren’t formally part of the settlement, Japan did occupy them in 1895. To Chinese eyes, consequently, wrenching it back probably looks like a good first step toward repealing an unjust peace settlement, reversing Japanese adventurism, and avenging an old defeat.

Which leads to the second lesson: even though the territories concerned are small, the stakes are huge for the contestants. The struggle for mastery is about more than material interests. It’s about national honor and renown, motives sure to fire passions on both sides. The war’s outcome was a political symbol as much as it was an operational defeat for China. Indeed, the fleet action at the Yalu upended the regional order. Vanquishing China’s navy  signified the Middle Kingdom’s fall from atop the regional order after centuries of primacy. Just as humiliating, it announced Japan’s arrival as top gun in Asia.

Beijing is obsessed with turning the world right-side-up again. The debacle still rankles with China, even after 120 years and several regime changes, while democratic Japan intends to lock in the status quo. Both Tokyo and Beijing attach enormous value to their material interests and their international standing — and are prepared to pay dearly for those interests in lives, treasure, and military hardware.

Ergo, the third lesson: for great powers, sea power is the keystone of national status as well as an implement for defending offshore interests. Great powers need great navies to fulfill their destinies. Japan’s emperor decreed that the island nation would modernize following the Meiji Restoration of 1868. From then it took shipwrights about two decades to bolt together a battle fleet from a hodgepodge of imported boilers, guns, and other components. Tokyo’s Frankenfleet then took to the seas to humble an established — and what conventional wisdom considered a superior — Qing fleet.

Sea power clearly matters. For contemporary Tokyo and Beijing, then, the Sino-Japanese War’s outcome reaffirms the need to press ahead with naval construction. China has built advanced destroyers, large numbers of missile-armed diesel submarines, and its first aircraft carrier, all backed up by shore-based combat aircraft and anti-ship missiles able to strike hundreds of miles out to sea. Japan has taken halting steps to match China’s progress, bulking up its world-class submarine force while undertaking its first increase in defense spending in more than a decade — though China’s far larger military budget is growing much faster. Tokyo has also reached out to the Philippines, Vietnam, and other Asian coastal states embroiled in territorial disputes with Beijing — coalition partners can pool their resources while pushing back against Beijing politically.

To be sure, there are limits to history as a guide to warmaking, especially with regards to tactics and hardware. And of course, time and technological advances have transformed the face of naval warfare over the past 120 years. A conflict pitting fleets of armored steamers against each other offers few pointers on how ultramodern navies packing guided missiles and fighter jets should wage war. Beyond the need to concentrate superior naval might at the decisive place and time, the Sino-Japanese War has little to teach about tactics. Understandably, then, few Japanese or Chinese commentators say much about this dimension of the war. History speaks mainly to the larger political and strategic purposes for which nations fight on the high seas. The lesson, now as then: the nation that rules the sea amasses vast economic and geopolitical leverage over its rivals.

What about lessons unlearned? Is Japan or China missing something, or learning false lessons that might distort its strategy? One lesson Japan has learned, but to which China appears indifferent, is the value of alliances. The Sino-Japanese War was a one-on-one affair. But France, Germany, and Russia intervened diplomatically after the war to strip Japan of its newly won holdings in north China. Europeans fretted that a dominant Japan would lock the imperial powers out of the China trade and otherwise upend the regional power balance.

That was bad enough from Japan’s standpoint. But Russia subsequently grabbed some of Japan’s gains for itself — notably the stronghold at Port Arthur, the maritime gateway to northern China.

To avoid a repeat of this humiliation, Tokyo concluded an alliance with Britain before initiating the next round of fighting, against Russia in 1904
-1905. While it didn’t take up arms, Britain did close the Suez Canal to the Russian Navy, compelling Moscow’s naval reinforcements to steam 20,000 miles around Africa, through the Indian Ocean, and into Far Eastern waters to do battle. The detour so enfeebled the Russian Baltic Fleet that it made easy pickings for the Imperial Japanese Navy at the climactic Battle of Tsushima Strait, named after the narrow sea between Japan and the Korean Peninsula. In 1905, Japan regained the territory it had lost to great-power intervention in 1895, and humbled a European imperial power in the bargain.

Alliances, it seems, can pay off handsomely. That’s Strategy 101, and a lesson the postwar security alliance with the United States has reconfirmed for Japan time and again. China, by contrast, stands aloof from its East Asian neighbors even on its best days. On its haughtier days — most of the time, lately — China goes out of its way to browbeat and sometimes threaten them. That’s no way to win friends and allies.

Chinese commentaries on the Sino-Japanese War, furthermore, reveal an apparent blind spot toward the human factor in naval warfare. Strategists grudgingly concede Imperial Japan’s impressive accomplishments in the material realm. But at the same time they tend to scapegoat rather than admit the enemy outthought or outfought China. They hunt for culprits within the Qing government or naval establishment. The tenor of such critiques: Japan can’t possibly have won, ergo China must have lost.

For instance, opinion-makers long faulted Chinese naval commanders for tactical and technical malpractice. Some senior officers of China’s military, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), now want to exonerate Qing commanders, and instead blame the Qing Dynasty itself. Bureaucratic institutions, they maintain, were backward, inflexible, and unable to keep up with an inferior but dynamic Meiji Japan. Shifting the blame to Qing mandarins restores luster to China’s maritime traditions that reach back into the dynastic age.

Whatever the truth of this reappraisal, criticizing a dead Chinese regime slights Imperial Japanese Navy seamanship, gunnery, and sheer élan. Sometimes one contender loses not because of its own fecklessness but because the other side fights better. Refusal to acknowledge Japan’s past superiority in the human dimension hints at China’s contempt toward its rival in the present day. And as Japan’s Self-Defense Forces don’t often trumpet their power, PLA Navy battle-worthiness could suffer from myopia.

Shortsightedness aside, Beijing has the intellectual and emotional edge on this one. Japan learned the lessons catalogued here long ago, and thus may be complacent. Modern-day Japanese researchers are few compared to Chinese strategists combing through history for insights. Why the disparity? Maybe defeat and dishonor concentrate the mind, while guarding a longstanding status quo deadens it. Maybe resolving to take something from someone else lights a fire in the belly in a way that holding what one already possesses doesn’t. Either way, Beijing simply seems to want it more.

How the belligerents read history won’t decide a short, sharp war should one transpire in the East China Sea. But history could make a difference by fixing attention on naval development — and stirring the mad blood in Beijing and Tokyo.

James R. Holmes is the J.C. Wylie chair of maritime strategy at the U.S. Naval War College and co-author of Red Star Over the Pacific: China's Rise and the Challenge to U.S. Maritime Strategy. The views voiced here are his alone.


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