Contemporary Japan faces a thorny series of difficulties, most of which are disturbingly similar to (the by us earlier described) Japan’s late-nineteenth-century concerns. What Japan cares about are in two regions the Western Hemisphere and Southeast Asia, with only one itty-bitty problem: Japans dealing with China.
It has become conventional to study Japanese modernization starting with the Meiji period. The Meiji reforms are often considered as the watershed in Japanese history, a period of transition from feudal and traditional society to a modern nation-state. In contrast, the Tokugawa era is often described as premodern, feudal, and stagnant. Unlike the conventional approach that sees this period as premodern ''tom by revolts, factionalism, and civil war," there is now a growing tendency to consider the Tokugawa regime a modern sovereign state even if it did not strictly coincide with characteristics of the Eurocentric notion of modernity.
The Tokugawa period is generally credited that it brought, to Japan social stability, economic growth, urban culture, and a remarkable rise in literacy.s However, the system came to the end of its glory after two and a half centuries partly because of the changing nature of the Japanese economy and the demographic pressures on the hierarchical social system. As a result of the deteriorating financial situation, the samurai became poorer, the merchants (shonin) increasingly became richer arid more powerful, and the peasant class had to carry the entire burden of the deteriorating financial situation.
The Japanese emperor was little more than a figurehead with a dusting of religious connotations. Real authority rested with his military commander: the shogun. Unfortunately for the shogun and the emperor, “imperial” power rarely reached much beyond the tips of their troops’ weapons. Rather than think of the shogun as all-powerful, it is more accurate to consider him the most powerful daimyo.
The Daimyo and the samurai, however, came to be in deep debt to increasingly powerful merchant families like the Mitsui family in Osaka, who played an important role in the overthrow of the Tokugawa regime. Under these circumstances, the regime had to confront increasingly serious rural and urban revolts. Amidst these economic and social problems, Western cultural, economic, and military pressures to infiltrate Japan became increasingly intense.
Contact with Europe came quite late and initially was limited to a single port, Nagasaki, and a single external partner, the Netherlands.
The Tokugawa however perceived such attempts by the Westerners as a serious national security threat and responded to them harshly. From the very beginning, the Tokugawa regime had followed a closed country (sakoku) policy. They expelled the Spanish in 1624 and the Portuguese in 1638. In 1637, the Japanese were forbidden to leave their country without permission from the central government.
In 1640, an edict was issued to expel all foreigners from Japan except for a small trading station in Nagasaki where the Dutch and Chinese were allowed to have limited residency and trading rights. Many contemporary Japanese scholars believe that this policy of seclusion created an isolationist mentality combined with a strong sense of exclusionism and parochialism that continue to influence present-day Japanese foreign policy.
But politically, this enabled the Japanese to focus their efforts on unification, bit by bit at their own pace. Strategically, the inward-focused obsession made the Japanese maritime people without a navy.
The subsequent Japanese “navy” reflected the disunity, and sea-facing daimyos each fielded their own forces of militarized junks. No individual daimyo could boast a large enough naval force to sustain a trade route (much less a mainland Asian colony) while still defending his territory back home, so Japanese interaction with the wider world was far more adversarial and far less disciplined than that of other naval powers. Not so many fleets, as mobs on water. Less imperialism, more piracy. And yet Japan as a nation was forged in and by this naval chaos.
In 1800, roughly a millennium after the Japanese cultural emergence, all of coastal Japan finally was at least nominally under a single government, the Tokugawa Shogunate. But before the Japanese could explore what that meant, the world rudely intruded into their affairs. Thus Whether the Japanese liked it or not, modernity had arrived, at gunpoint, no less.
With his black ships behind him, when Commodore Matthew Perry of the United States came to Japan in 1853, he was able to force the regime to abandon its seclusion policy. The Tokugawa officials Were shocked by the power of Perry's fleet and seriously discussed ways to tackle this challenge. Japan was divided into opposing views about ways to confront the foreigners: some advocated the continuation of the policy of sakoku (national seclusion), which found its expression in the famous slogan, jo-i (expel the barbarians), whereas others supported the policy of kaikoku (national opening). For instance, Sakuma Shoza (1811-1864), a nationalist samurai from central Japan trained in the Dutch School tradition, understood that China was defeated because of its inflated feeling of superiority to other civilizations that led to their neglect of Western science and mathematics. As he noted, in order not to repeat the Chinese mistake, Japan had to open itself and learn from the West.
Not to mention that shortly after Perry’s visit, the British, French, Dutch, and Russians demanded similar concessions. In a mere fifteen years, the sudden introduction of the outside trade and the industrial technologies that went with them shredded Japanese social, political, and economic norms, which had yet to fully absorb the consequences of Japan’s own unification.
It was a race for the control of East Asia and the dominance of the region through treaties, influence, coaling stations, and steam. A race against Britain and Russia. For Americans, the race was on. In the late 1 840s, American newspapers, magazines, and journals began a systematic campaign reflective of the American sentiment to throw open Japan to the commerce of the world. A debate about the US relationship to Japan arose in all comers of the nation and was taken up again and again in the country's largest papers. And once the US government had sent a squadron to the Japan seas to request and negotiate a treaty, the domestic press followed events closely. The Farmers' Cabinet journal put it in a front-page article in 1849 entitled "Japan": "Public attention is now turned towards the empire of Japan, which has so long remained a sealed book in the history of the world." The result was a fundamentally different kind of empire. In part, the difference was because the rationale was different.
As recently as 1800, Japan was the only local power that had any semblance of unity, and after Japan’s forced opening to the world, it was the only local power with steamships and firearms. Unity enabled the country to take full advantage of the new industrial technologies, and Japan instantly became the dominant regional power. In part, the difference was about imperial competition, or the lack thereof.
Once the Japanese mastered the making of cannons, the Europeans simply could not compete effectively so far from home. Even the Americans left. Not long after Perry invited himself into Japan with all the subtlety of a mafia protection salesman, the Confederate Army was bombarding Fort Sumter and Yankee's attention turned elsewhere. In part, the difference was about the speed of Japan’s naval rise.
Less than twenty years after the Perry expedition, Japan had upgraded from junks to steam-powered destroyers. In 1894–95, Japan easily trounced the Chinese up and down the East Asian coast in the Sino-Japanese War. In 1904–5, Japan conquered all of Korea while also sinking the entirety of both Russian fleets in the Russo-Japanese War.
But It wasn’t enough for the country to import and use the new technologies; its cities were too crammed to be competitive with the lower Age. Japan had to not only master the technologies but also advance them. Politically and culturally, the general population got swept up in the same modernizing, industrializing, nationalistic mindset that had overtaken Japan’s new, modernizing elite and their corporate expressions, the new zaibatsu (“money-cliques”). Strategically and militarily, Japan’s newfound and rapidly advancing technical prowess combined with its appreciation for the geography of long-range naval warfare pushed Japanese engineers to construct the world’s longest-range, hardest-hitting ships. Japan floated its first fully indigenous steel battleships in the mid-1890s and its first aircraft carrier in 1922.
But No matter how a country industrializes, there’s a list of non-negotiable inputs: labor for the factories, iron ore for steel smelting, and coal and oil to power the process. Of that list, Japan had only labor. Applying outside technology required that Japan venture out to secure industrial inputs. Modernizing and industrializing in an era without free trade demanded Japan become an empire. From the day Perry arrived, Japan was condemned to transition
Japan’s first stop was the island of Formosa, a largeish island just to the south of the Japanese archipelago and home to contemporary Taiwan. Though it was nominally under Chinese rule, the Japanese had little difficulty dispatching its defending forces in 1895. Japanese imperial forces now controlled the northern half of the First Island Chain as well as a military platform nearly within sight of the Chinese coast. Unlike the occasional raiding and pirating by Japanese naval forces during medieval times, now the Japanese could make their visits to the Chinese mainland last. Next up: the Korean Peninsula in 1905. Korea’s rugged internal geography mirrored Japan’s and produced an early Shogunate-like political structure as well. Industrialized Japan faced few issues subjugating the politically fractured, preindustrial Koreans. Attention turned to Manchuria in 1931, a Chinese region replete with fertile farmland, coal, and minerals, nearly everything Japan lacked. With these new resources and their preexisting military presence in Formosa, the Japanese could easily project power up and down the entire Chinese coast.
In World War II’s early days, imperial armies surged from Manchuria to every part of the northern Chinese core, reaching all the way to the Yangtze itself. Often launching from Taiwan, marine landings secured control of Shanghai, Wenzhou, Fuzhou, Xiamen, the Pearl River Delta, and Hainan Island. All the former European treaty ports in coastal China concessions, except Macao and Hong Kong, were now Japanese imperial territories. Less than two months after the fall of Paris to German forces, the Japanese seized total control over French Indochina because,
There was but one fly in the emperor’s ointment. The Americans occupied a choice piece of territory smack in the middle of it all: the Philippines. From that position in the middle of the First Island Chain, Americans could theoretically threaten everything the Japanese had and wanted. It didn’t help that prewar American policy was something Washington called Open Door. Officially, the policy was designed to limit European predation of China, at that point a thriving industry over a century old. Unofficially, the goal was to muscle the US of A in on the action. Unofficially and very quietly, the intent was to box Japan out of the region completely. Japan is best known in the American mind for the attack on Pearl Harbor, but ultimately the Battle of Pearl Harbor occurred only because the Japanese needed the Americans ejected from their Philippine foothold in the East Asian Rim.
In under six months, Japan had conquered nearly all European holdings in Southeast Asia, most notably the territories that today comprise Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, and Myanmar. Collectively these lands provided the Japanese with everything they could need, from sugar to metals to oil. The empire may have been a bit gangly, but if there was one thing the Japanese knew how to do, it was how to manage an archipelago. Less than a century after Commodore Perry’s threatening of a “backward” nation, Japanese forces in World War II stretched from the Aleutians to the edge of India. Its navy vied with the Americans for control of the Pacific Ocean. It all occurred against the cultural backdrop that allowed for events as horrific as the Rape of Nanking, the impressment of Korean “comfort” women, and the Bataan Death March. It was a pattern that did far more than give the Americans pause. Assessing Japan’s rapid technological improvements, lightning military advances, apparent lack of moral center, and the logistical restraints of maritime warfare the Pacific Ocean away from home ports, the Americans chose not to do battle with Japan’s armies at all. Rather than duke it out island by island, the Americans seized only sufficient islands so that their naval and air power could wreck the shipping routes upon which Imperial Japan depended. Then, with the Japanese economy and military complex on its knees, the Americans declined ground combat one last time, opting instead for nuclear obliteration.
The Japanese knew full well that military defeat meant the end of Japan as a country. There could be no middle ground between a Greater Japan that was industrialized and the fractured nonentity of the Shogunates.
But the Americans surprised them, in large part because the Americans needed their defeated Pacific foe. The Order’s core rationale was for America’s new allies to stand between the Soviet Union and the United States, and to do so willingly. The United States achieved this by imposing security globally, crafting an international economic system, and granting unilateral access to the American market. In one fell swoop, the Americans provided the Japanese with everything Japan had fought for and ultimately lost, between 1870 and 1945. A position under the American nuclear umbrella was tossed in as a cringe-inducing bonus.
Japan wasn’t so much dismantled and rebuilt as upgraded. Japanese factories that had made weapons were reconfigured to make sewing machines and household goods. Optical device companies began making cameras instead of gunsights. Heavy industries switched from tanks and planes to automobiles. Aside from a pair of newcomers, Honda and Sony, the whos-who on the list of most powerful Japanese firms, Hitachi, Toshiba, Mitsui, Mitsubishi, were the same names that had dominated the Japanese system before the war.
The term “miracle” to describe Japan’s postwar boom is a misnomer. It was as highly planned, tightly regulated, and deliberate as every step of Japan’s evolution since 1852, and the hoped-for outcome was the fruition of Japan’s considerable domestic ambitions backed by the full force of the American economic, political, and military system. In a single generation, Japan recovered from the destruction and despair of its World War II defeat to become the second-largest economy in the world.
That achievement was notable from any angle: the unexpected preservation of the Japanese way of life, the ongoing success of the Japanese technocratic experience, the anchoring of Japan in the American alliance structure, and the prevention of a large-scale Soviet expansion in the Pacific theater. But in becoming so big so fast, Japan may well have been the first country to make the Americans second-guess the Order’s very existence.
One of the Japanese leaders’ favorite Order-era tools to maximize their economic strength was currency manipulation. The central bank would print lots of yen and use them to buy dollars on international markets, driving the yen down in value versus the dollar, making Japanese goods relatively cheaper, and thus encouraging Americans to purchase them.
Contemporary Japan faces a thorny series of difficulties, most of which are disturbingly similar to Japan’s late-nineteenth-century concerns. Luckily (for Japan), just as the Japanese were able to massage several of their preindustrial problems into strengths, the same logic holds true for the Japan of today. The first issue is the looming iceberg of Japan’s demographic implosion. The niggardly amount of flatland in Japan that has so shaped the country’s political, agricultural, industrial, and technological history has similarly shaped Japan’s demographic structure.
Once one filters out countries that aren’t really countries (think Monaco) and takes into account the fact that over 80 percent of Japan’s land is uninhabitable, Japan is the world’s most densely populated and fifth-most-urbanized country. Cramming everyone into tiny urban condos generates some amazing economies of scale and wonderfully efficient city services, but it makes it damnably difficult to raise children.
Japan’s ruggedness prevents the formation of something commonplace in America: suburbs. If you want kids, you cannot move outside the city and commute in; you must squeeze them into your postage-stamp-size apartment. (The average Tokyo apartment comes out to less than 275 square feet per occupant.) In such circumstances, there are a lot of only children, a fair number of childless couples, and a far from an insignificant number of folks who never marry because they don’t want to share their space.
The demographic degradation has been going on since the majority of Japanese relocated to the cities just before World War II, and passed the point of no return shortly after the turn of the millennium. Japan can now look forward to an ever-rising bill for pensions and health care, an ever-shrinking tax base, and a deepening shortage of workers in every field.
There are a few bright spots. Japan has the indubitable advantage of having gotten (very) rich before becoming old. As the country with the highest proportion of retirees in its population, Japan has the incentive for finding better and more cost-effective methods of caring for the elderly, but it also has the financial muscle and high-tech economy to do so. Japan isn’t simply land with higher sales of diapers for adults than diapers for infants; it is a land where elder-care facilities are partially automated.
Japan is approaching the worker shortage of the twenty-first century in the same way it approached its higher cost structures in the late nineteenth and early twentieth—by being more advanced. Japan is the most technologically advanced, and Japan literally has a national robot strategy. In fact, I recently mentioned the new robotic form of Buddhism...
None of which is meant to take away from the seriousness of the threat. Japan isn’t just a rapidly aging nation as is the case with China. It is already the world’s most aged nation, leading humanity’s charge into demographic oblivion.
Strength from weakness, again
In these interlocking problems, there lies s interlocking solutions the Japanese are already implementing. First up, the Japanese are fairly nondenominational when it comes to where they get their electricity. They have to be. The enclaved nature of Japan’s cities means there cannot be a meaningful national grid, only the Greater Tokyo region has any meaningful large-scale interconnections. Each urban center must maintain its own electricity system, and so each city has found itself forced to overbuild generation capacity and diversify it among several different fuel inputs so that, should one system fail due to lack of imported inputs, the others can take up the slack. Nuclear, coal, oil, natural gas. Each major city independently has them all.
The 2011 Tohoku earthquake and the subsequent Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant meltdown put the system’s pros and cons on global display. The cons were obvious, as the Fukushima region—as one of the least densely populated parts of Japan—also had the least-redundant power system and so suffered blackouts and brownouts for months. However, it was the only region to do so. The self-sufficient nature of each city’s power systems prevented cascading failures; Tokyo largely recovered within a month. Since then the Japanese have steadily expanded interconnections to prevent something like the Fukushima brownouts from occurring again. Because every region has such vast amounts of surplus generation capacity, the only way to generate even a regional blackout in the future would be a major war that puts foreign boots in Japan or shuts down all trade lanes for several weeks. The disruption would have to interrupt oil and natural gas and coal and uranium shipments. Taking out one or two wouldn’t do much. Preserving this overlapping energy security is so important to the Japanese that they’ve been bringing their entire nuclear system back online even as other countries were so spooked by the Fukushima disaster that they’re going nuclear-free. Next up is the labor and materials problem. Demographic aging means Japanese labor is expensive (and getting more so). Japanese industrial inputs are huge and varied (and getting more so). Japan’s position at the far edge of Asia gives it some of the longest, most vulnerable supply lines in the world. Importing ever-larger volumes of ever-more diverse materials from ever-longer distances for processing and manufacturing by an ever-shrinking and -aging workforce is a recipe for failure. So Japan is changing its industrial model. Most are familiar with terms like outsourcing (shifting production overseas but shipping the product back to the home market) or resourcing (returning production home). Japan has become the master of resourcing: shifting production to another country to serve that specific market (aka “build where you sell”). Doing so does far more than place Japanese products on the right side of currency, military, political, and tariff barriers.
It pre-positions the Japanese industry within the handful of countries with stable-to-growing demographics (and thus stable-to-growing markets). It gives the host country a vested interest in protecting industrial and energy input supply chains that indirectly benefit Japan. It generates scads of hard currency that can come back home to mitigate the loss of income tax from a shrinking worker base. And in the long run, it buys the goodwill of the host country, which Tokyo hopes to cash in on other issues. The resourcing trend has already become so deeply enmeshed in the Japanese industrial system that Japan itself no longer produces a large percentage of its products for export. In the auto industry, for instance, only a fifth of Japan’s internal manufacturing is meant for markets outside of Japan. Japan is now one of the world’s least trade-dependent countries. It keeps much of the high-brainpower work, especially design—at home. If a supply-chain system needs to be broken up, the higher-end and final-assembly work often go to the United States, Texas, Kentucky, Alabama, and South Carolina being favorite spots. It has been a long time since 1980 when Japan was a global export leader. Resourcing doesn’t solve everything. Even with mounting technological advances that squeeze lower-skilled labor into a smaller and smaller piece of the process,
The next part of the solution is firming up relationships with countries that co-locate both industrial inputs and those initial processing steps that are low-skilled-labor intensive. For the most part, the countries that check those boxes in the industries and markets Japan cares about are in two regions. The first is the Western Hemisphere, where a combination of American action and sheer distance is likely to keep the chaos of the Eastern Hemisphere at bay. Because there are no competitors, no powers whatsoever, between Japan and the Americas, Japan should be able to retain access. The second is Southeast Asia. Except for Thailand and Singapore, all are resource-rich and boast young, growing populations. For their part, Thailand and Singapore are far more technologically advanced and are already heavily integrated into Japanese manufacturing systems. That Southeast Asia and the Western Hemisphere have the two greatest concentrations of the foodstuffs the Japanese prefer is a bonus. Raw materials and processing in South America and Southeast Asia. End markets in Southeast Asia and throughout the Western Hemisphere, with an emphasis on the United States. It’s a neat fix with only one itty-bitty problem.
Dealing with China
Today, of course, China has the problems related to the Coronavirus which also already erodes its influence in Southeast Asia, but even without that few in the Chinese bureaucracy have any experience, or even memory, of dealing with a real economic slowdown, much less an existential crisis as is happening now. The Chinese have known nothing but increasing stability and wealth since the post-Mao consolidation of the late 1970s. A late-stage, lifelong bureaucrat in 2020 would have been no older than twenty-six the last time the Chinese knew civic breakdown, political chaos, and famine. There’s no institutional memory of or skill in dealing with the political and cultural fallout that recessions bring, much less something more typical of Chinese history. Balls will be dropped. Minds will be lost. Chinese history provides literally dozens of ways China can fall apart, most involving the Chinese system seizing up from top to bottom and then breaking into factions:
Along economic lines: the north, center, south, and interior don’t cohere well unless forced./ Along class lines: the urban rich of the coast have far more in common with outside powers than one another, much less with the seething interior populations./ Within the Communist elite: the culture of bottomless financial resources has generated a mass of corruption that if vomited forth would either break China into mutually antagonist pieces or devolve it into a kleptocracy, and it isn’t clear which would be worse for the citizenry.
In these scenarios, China doesn’t so much stew in its own juices as boil in its own blood, and that is before the Communist Party has to make any decisions about how violent it might be in its efforts to preserve a unified China. The last thing on the Chinese mind will be venturing out into the wider, more dangerous world.
On the off-chance, Beijing can keep it together in an environment of epic disruption and civil breakdown, the idea that the central government might consider a Blammo! approach to East Asia cannot be entirely discounted. Let us be clear. Such an effort will absolutely fail. China is utterly incapable of shooting its way to resource security or export markets or a diversified domestic economy. Just as important, the country on the receiving end would not be the United States. The Americans are out of reach, and even a mild American counteraction against Chinese interests would utterly wreck everything that makes contemporary China functional.
Instead, a failing, belligerent China would be Japan’s to deal with. Gun-for-gun and ship-for-ship the Chinese should be able to overwhelm Japan, but a sane Chinese leader can read a map and knows full well that any conflict with Japan is not about equivalency; it’s about range and position, both of which Japan has but China lacks.
In an environment in which global energy shipments become compromised because of destabilization elsewhere in Eurasia, there would not be enough industrial inputs, first and foremost oil, available for everyone. Southeast Asia consumes about as much as it produces, so it is out of the game. The Europeans retain a relevant mix of both naval reach and political links to their former colonies in Africa to secure those supplies, supplies that will no longer be available for China. That leaves the Persian Gulf, five thousand miles distant from Shanghai, as the only significant remaining source.
Even China’s limited expeditionary capacity is not as good as it sounds. Nameplate operational vessels very roughly suited to the task that could even theoretically make the trip in the first place. Along the entire route, they will be operating in or near potentially hostile powers, such as Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, and India, and doing so without a smidgeon of air support. Defending a string of, at a bare minimum, eighty-four slow, fat, supertankers sailing through moderately to extremely dangerous waters at any given time is simply impossible with the navy China has.
Japan, in contrast, has four aircraft carrier battle groups that can make it that far. The point is less than the Japanese would use carriers for convoy duty, and more than the Japanese could scrub Chinese naval power out of existence from Hormuz to Malacca with a minimum of fuss. In a shooting war, the only tankers that reach East Asia are the ones the Japanese let through. Even worse (for the Chinese), the Japanese only have one-third of China’s oil import requirements, and Japan will have the option of sourcing fuels from the Western Hemisphere to boot. China would find itself outreached and outmaneuvered and out of options, and ultimately out of fuel. And because the Chinese cannot compete with the Japanese in the Persian Gulf or the Indian Ocean, the only option left would be to strike at Japan directly.
In any real shooting war, the Chinese can do a lot of damage. China’s air force and missiles could probably sink everything floating within several hundred miles of its shores, which takes out pretty much everything within the northern three-quarters of the First Island Chain. Longer-range missiles could rain down on Japan to great effect: Japan is heavily urbanized, and Japan’s cities often do quadruple duty as population centers, seaports, naval bases, and air force bases. Even with American assistance, most would suffer significant damage. Without American anti-ballistic-missile defense, it would be much worse. Civilian casualties would easily reach the hundreds of thousands.
For a mentally untethered Chinese bureaucrat with no sense of history or context or consequences and facing massive stress throughout the entire Chinese system, the war might seem the perfect release of cathartic nationalism. But that’s all it would be China lacks the naval wherewithal to follow up such an assault with a First Island Chain breakthrough, much less an amphibious assault on the Home Islands. Aside from killing (a lot of) Japanese citizens, it would achieve nothing, well, nothing that would work out well for China.
First, China is a trading country that imports nearly all its energy and most of its raw materials. Sinking the ships near China’s shores means no ships will sail near China’s shores for a good long while. The Chinese will have then caused their own economic collapse, social breakdown, and famine.
Second, Japan is no nobody. Japan may have surrendered unconditionally at the end of World War II, but that doesn’t mean it disarmed. The Americans needed the Japanese equipped and standing upright to help face down the Soviets. Consequently, military production in Japan never went away, and it is doing more than making machine guns. The stealth F-35 jet will form the backbone of American airpower for the next two generations? Mitsubishi Heavy Industries runs licensed production of it in Japan.
Japan doesn’t only build but also designs its own naval vessels and has since the 1880s. Japan’s navy is easily the second-most powerful expeditionary force in the world. China’s first designs date and the Kaga, will soon be carrying the aforementioned F-35s and so will pack more punch than nearly any ship in history save the American supercarriers. These mobile airbases enable the Japanese to engage in offense or defense wherever they want and, for the most part, out of range of Chinese anti-ship defenses.
Japan’s air force has sufficient reach to strike the Chinese mainland in any war scenario, and would eagerly prioritize any targets that might grant the Chinese future military options. At this point, the Chinese will have lost their entire navy, the dry docks that would enable them to float more ships in the future, and the energy pipelines from Russia, which provide China with the bulk of its imported energy that doesn’t come in via ship. Those fat container ports that crowd the Chinese coast would certainly be reduced to TV- and shoe-strewn craters.
Third, China’s situation vis-ŕ-vis Japan is more than a bit like Japan’s position vis-ŕ-vis the United States at the dawn of World War II. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 failed to sink the most powerful units of the American navy, its carriers, which were out to sea. Japan’s navy is fully blue-water and doesn’t spend a lot of time in port, a habit likely to intensify if geopolitical tensions are running high. Hitting Japan not only wouldn’t remove Japan’s navy from the board, but it would also give the Japanese full justification to treat all Chinese merchant shipping anywhere in the Pacific and Indian Oceans as prey. In less than a month, China’s entire global position would dissolve into dust. That time frame assumes that the Chinese do not fall prey to a Japanese first strike and that the Indians, Koreans, Vietnamese, Americans, and others remain neutral.
One way or another, this will all end excruciatingly badly for China, and even if the Chinese land a series of sucker punches on the Home Islands by launching the largest assaults on civilian targets since World War II, it is Japan, not China, that will be the last man standing.
Asia after China
The countries most concerned about Chinese power are the countries best positioned to do something about it, and to do so by allying with the Japanese.
Luckily for Tokyo, Japanese relations with India are as good as China’s relations with India are bad, and that difference alone might prove enough to cause China’s defeat in a war with Japan.
Next up are the littoral states of Southeast Asia. China has done pretty much everything possible to aggravate all of them. Economically, the Chinese have attempted to lock them all into dependency relationships via the One Belt, One Road system (especially the Philippines and Malaysia). Politically, the Chinese don’t hesitate to inflame internal tensions, especially when there’s a bit of historical umbrage in play (especially in Vietnam), or a Chinese population that can be riled up (especially in Malaysia and Indonesia). Strategically, the Chinese have attempted to seize the entirety of the South China Sea, expanding atolls and emplacing significant military assets throughout the area (which bothers pretty much everyone).
At a glance, it is easy to see why Beijing feels it can get away with being bossy. The Southeast Asian navies are piecemeal at best. But this isn’t about confrontation. It’s about access.
Indonesia and Malaysia are well beyond the reach of the bulk of China’s navy, but together they control the all-important Strait of Malacca, the gateway to Persian Gulf oil and the European consumer market. Closer in, Vietnam and the Philippines flank the west and east sides of the South China Sea, the first leg of the long journey from the Chinese mainland to those same destinations. China must have at least passive acquiescence from all of them to maintain its import and export shipping. All it would take to transform the South China Sea and Malacca into no-go zones for Chinese shipping would be a few dollops of military assistance from an eager Japan.
Taiwan is an even more obvious recruit. For China, the “wayward province” propaganda line is from the heart. Moving against Taiwan just might provide the Chinese people with a patriotic victory. All those shiny new ships the Chinese have that cannot penetrate the First Island Chain or attain global reach are more than enough to broach Taiwanese defenses. The more economic, cultural, financial, diplomatic, and military pressure China finds itself under, the more economic, cultural, financial, diplomatic, and military pressure China will put on Taiwan.
But the Japanese can read maps as well; Taiwan’s physical position is critical. It serves as an unsinkable aircraft carrier that could end Chinese internal coastal shipping between northern and southern China, and as Taiwan is littered with anti-air defenses, nothing less than a full amphibious assault can take it out of the equation. Even worse (for the Chinese), it really wouldn’t matter how an assault on Taiwan would end, because even an outright Chinese occupation of Taiwan doesn’t solve China’s problem of being far from its resource needs and end markets. It all still ends with Japanese regional primacy: a war-wracked Taiwan would be formally folded into Japan’s military sphere of influence, while an intact Taiwan would be formally folded into Japan’s economic sphere of influence.
The shifts in circumstance will be most extreme for the two Koreas. Both Seoul and Pyongyang spent the past seven decades attempting to play Washington, Moscow, Beijing, and Tokyo (and each other) off one another in attempts to carve out a bit of geopolitical space. With Russia’s decline (more on that in later chapters), the United States’ disengagement, and China’s choice of collapse or retreat, most options have vanished.
The smart play would be to seek de facto economic fusion with reemergent Japan. Japan will control the regional security alignments that are absolutely required if the South Koreans want to continue with their import-driven/export-led economic system, and the Japanese–Southeast Asian axis will prove just as central to ongoing Korean economic development as it will for Japan’s own. In a China-less Asia, North Korea will have lost its primary sponsor and source of both raw materials and consumer goods. Economically, it is a clean, easy decision.
Politically, it is anything but. Korean history on both sides of the DMZ is replete with examples of defeat and humiliation at Japan’s hands. The most pressing Asian issue of 2030 onward will be how the two Koreas relate—or fail to relate—with Tokyo. It is far from a minor issue. North Korea is already a nuclear power, South Korea could become one nearly as quickly as Japan, and both Koreas are armed to the teeth.
There might be room for some version of China in a Japanese Asia, regardless of whether the Chinese opt for a war of national destruction or a less-explosive national disintegration. The question controls. Japan will undoubtedly be willing to fold bits of China into its new system of resource supply and market access, but only if those bits accede to Japanese security primacy. Southern coastal portions of China will find that just peachy. Areas farther north will prefer the word “traitorous.” The age-old internal Chinese wheel of imperial center versus rebellious periphery will spin once more. Most likely a host of southern Chinese coastal cities will again be folded into economic networks that have nothing to do with their countrymen.
No matter who emerges most intact from the region’s inevitable convulsions, most players in most sectors will lose their biggest markets, their biggest suppliers, or both. Adjusting to the new reality will generate literally thousands of follow-on complications and competitions, which will reverberate for decades.
Few countries on Earth have as positive a relationship with all sides of the Persian Gulf as Japan does. Japan’s status as one of the very few countries of the world that can bring naval power to bear in the Persian Gulf will induce the region’s quarreling countries to take any requests from Tokyo very seriously. It is less gunboat diplomacy and more a client who leads a coalition who pays in cash and guards their own deliveries.
But the Persian Gulf is still the Persian Gulf. Regardless of how China’s fall and Japan’s rise manifests, the Japanese still must ensure the sanctity of supply, both for themselves as well as for anyone they wish to be in their orbit. For the states of the Persian Gulf, their end markets will be wholly at the discretion of the only naval power that can reach the Gulf, ensure product delivery, and care enough to do so regularly. That will no longer be the United States. It will be Japan. One way or another, the politics of the Persian Gulf are about to be a Japanese problem.
Conflict’s end in Asia heralds the dawn of a fundamentally new age of Japanese primacy, not just in Northeast Asia, but in Southeast Asia as well, with tendrils of economic and military influence reaching to the Persian Gulf. At some point, the Americans will behold what Japan hath wrought and have some very serious second thoughts. Considering the time it will take the Japanese to consolidate their gains in the face of their demographic decline and the time it will take the Americans to shake themselves out of their internal political narcissism.