In first days of July 1937, Chinese and Japanese soldiers skirmished in Wanping, a few miles southwest of what is now the Chinese capital. China’s Chiang Kai-shek then knew his army was no match for Japan’s, and he had many opportunities to avoid battle with a vastly superior foe. Yet he ultimately chose war.Chang highlights China's latest transgressions:
So why did Chiang decide to fight? And how did a minor—and probably accidental—clash turn into years of disastrous conflict? Now, analysts think today’s Asia feels like 1914 Europe, and last month in Davos Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe likened today’s situation involving his country and China to that of England and Germany a hundred years ago. The better comparison, however, is 1937. The parallels between then and now, unfortunately, are striking.
The “China Incident,” as the Japanese then called the war, began on the banks of the Yongding River in Wanping during the night of July 7, 1937. Imperial troops, shooting blanks in an evening exercise, found themselves under fire, presumably from elements of the Chinese 29th Army. After the minor exchange near Lugouqiao, commonly known as the Marco Polo Bridge, Japanese officers were alarmed when one of their soldiers failed to turn up for a roll call. They then demanded that Chinese guards let them search nearby Wanping, where the Japanese had no general permission to enter.
A refusal triggered days of skirmishes. Once the fighting started, it did not matter that the stray Japanese private, who is thought to have wandered off to urinate, eventually turned up unhurt. Soon, Chiang Kai-shek’s Republic of China was at war. The Japanese in short order would take the Marco Polo Bridge, cut off Beijing from the rest of the country, and seize that city. They would then drive Chiang’s forces from the metropolis of Shanghai, the capital of Nanjing, and most of the rest of eastern China.
Why is 1937 relevant to us? Today, China, no longer the victim, is aggressive, continually pressing its weaker neighbors to its south and east. For decades, the People’s Republic has been seizing specks in the South China Sea from Vietnam and the Philippines.Then he goes into specific comparisons, some of which mirror my own:
Most recently, Chinese vessels took Scarborough Shoal from the Philippines in the middle of 2012. Washington, not wanting to antagonize Beijing and hoping to avoid a confrontation, did nothing to stop Beijing gobbling up the shoal despite America’s mutual defense treaty with Manila. The Chinese were not satisfied with their seizure, however. Now they are pressuring Second Thomas Shoal and other Philippine territory, also in the South China Sea. Beijing claims about 80 percent of that critical body of international water as an internal Chinese lake.
And as soon as the Chinese took Scarborough, they began to increase pressure on the Senkakus in the East China Sea, regularly sending their ships into territorial waters surrounding the islands and sometimes flying planes into airspace there. The barren outcroppings are claimed and in fact administered by Japan, but Beijing, which calls them the Diaoyus, wants them.
Why should the Japanese care about rocks in the East China Sea? The reason is that the Chinese are acting like classic aggressors. They were not satisfied with Scarborough, so they pressured the Senkakus. Chinese analysts, egged on by state media, are now arguing that Beijing should claim Japan’s Okinawa and the rest of the Ryukyu chain.
First, the Japanese military then, like the Chinese one today, was emboldened by success and was ultra-nationalist. The views now expressed by China’s senior officers are deeply troubling. For instance, General Liu Yazhou, the political commissar at the People’s Liberation Army National Defense University, recently urged armed conflict to seize territory. “Those borders where our army has won victories are more peaceful and stable, but those where we were too timid have more disputes,” he said in a recent magazine interview. “An army that fails to achieve victory is nothing.”Read the whole thing.
Second, the media in the 1930s publicized the idea that Japan was being surrounded by hostile powers that wished to prevent its rise. That’s exactly what the Communist Party says today about China.
Third, then, like now, civilians controlled Asia’s biggest army only loosely. Although many believe that new Chinese ruler Xi Jinping is firmly in command, he appears to be allowing the military to engage in provocative behavior to obtain its support. In the complex bargaining process inside Beijing, Xi may be letting flag officers, head of the most powerful faction in the Party, tell him what policies he will adopt. If the PLA is now Xi Jinping’s faction—as many now believe—it is unlikely that he is in a position to tell the top brass what to do.
Yet whether Xi is an aggressor in his own right—a logical conclusion of the majority view that he is in control of the military—or is being led by the nose by flag officers, China is lashing out, taking on many nations at once. That is the same thing Japan did beginning in the 1930s.