On September 2, 1945, aboard the American battleship USS Missouri, a Japanese delegation signed the instruments of surrender that ended the Second World War. Imperial Japan’s 60-year dream of territorial expansionism ended in the utter defeat and ruin of the country. To impress upon the Japanese the Allied military might which was used to crush them, hundreds of Boeing B29 Superfortress heavy bombers flew over as the surrender ceremony ended – as if the hundreds of Allied warships anchored at Tokyo Bay were still not enough to impress that image on the defeated Japanese.
However, there was a practical purpose to this overt display of massive firepower: there was suspicion that the Japanese would have tried to make one final suicidal attack on that target-rich assembly of Allied leadership. A number of Allied aircraft were combat-ready just in case an attempt was made by suicidal elements. In fact, two weeks earlier, the Japanese government themselves had to put down a mutiny of Imperial Army officers who were against the decision to surrender. So, General Douglas MacArthur, the supreme allied commander, did make a huge gamble when he relied on the defeated Imperial Japanese Army to provide his security on the first days of his arrival in Japan following the acceptance by the Imperial Japanese government of the Potsdam Declaration on August 15, 1945.
Both sides were surprised by each other’s conduct in the events leading to and following the surrender. As was mentioned, the Japanese proved surprisingly cooperative and respectful during the preparations for surrender. There was none of the feared desperation and social collapse that had characterized the Japanese resistance during the earlier battle of Okinawa. A Japanese reporter on a US Navy vessel en route to the battleship Missouri to cover the surrender knew that the war had ended and peace was finally at hand when an American sailor offered him coffee, more so when MacArthur struck a conciliatory tone during the ceremony. It removed all apprehensions drilled into the Japanese that the victors would be ruthless to the vanquished. MacArthur’s words:
We are gathered here, representatives of the major warring powers, to conclude a solemn agreement whereby peace may be restored.
The issues involving divergent ideals and ideologies have been determined on the battlefields of the world, and hence are not for our discussion or debate.
Nor is it for us here to meet, representing as we do a majority of the peoples of the earth, in a spirit of distrust, malice, or hatred.
But rather it is for us, both victors and vanquished, to rise to that higher dignity which alone befits the sacred purposes we are about to serve, committing all of our peoples unreservedly to faithful compliance with the undertakings they are here formally to assume.
Furthermore, an act of MacArthur that has become the subject of great postwar debate was when he sought not to force the abdication of Emperor Hirohito but instead see him as a vital ally in the rebuilding of Japan. A concern among the Allied high command was that too much gutting of Japan’s social structure, of which the Imperial household was an integral part of, might spark unrest in the newly defeated nation. Furthermore, Hirohito was seen as a tool of the Imperial military and not as the decisive leader, which actually reflected the real situation existing in Japan before and during the war years. The magnanimity shown by the Allied high command and specifically MacArthur, and the resistance to intimations by the Soviet Union to carve up Japan into occupied zones, proved crucial in preventing a dismembering of the country and the disunity of its people.
Japan, a nation in ruins
Japan had been laid waste by relentless Allied bombing attacks especially by 1945. Majority of its cities needed rehabilitation and its citizens were hungry. The occupation of Japan wherein the Japanese answered to the Allied Supreme Commander none other than General MacArthur himself lasted from 1945 up to 1952. The Korean War which broke out in 1950 proved a stimulus to restore Japan’s sovereignty as a nation to aid in containing what was seen as Communist expansionism.
Aside from rehabilitation, effort was made to bring wartime Japanese leaders to justice for war crimes of which a number were imprisoned and executed. The Tokyo War Crimes Trials and trials in other countries such as the Japanese War Crimes Trials in the Philippines went on for the rest of the 1940s. Reckless military adventurism caused the deaths of more than 3 million Japanese and the destruction of Japan. The military was seen as the culprit and it was them who had wrested power from the civilians and emasculated opposition in brutal operations in the 1930s. This showed that there was resistance among the Japanese but it was suppressed by the military. Just like in all totalitarian countries, dissent was whispered for fear of reprisals.
Japan emerged from the war the direct opposite from how it entered it. There was now revulsion for things deemed militaristic. It was not just the so-called MacArthur’s post-war Constitution that paved the way for the establishment of a benign modern post-war Japan, but the horrible suffering and outcome for the Japanese of the Pacific and China War that was made possible by the Imperial military. The rejection of militarism led to the rapid adoption of liberal ideas into Japan, thus making it possible to achieve a position of great cultural and economic influence by the 1970s and still retain it up to today despite the challenge from China. It was like some sort of Second Meiji-type Restoration had occurred in Japan. This is an achievement of post-war Japan that the Japanese militarists of the 1930s and 1940s would find difficult to fathom.
The world in turmoil
As Japan clawed itself out of the debris of war and militarism, many parts of the world still found themselves in the throes of conflict, spurred by decolonization, superpower proxy war, and a combination of both as seen in the Vietnam War, which combined decolonization and great power rivalries. The Cold War had reared its head by the end of the 1940s and lasted until the 1980s. The United States faced the Soviet Union and both had their own respective motley collection of lesser states to buttress their alliance system.
China, which had emerged from their civil war, was still heavily concentrated in internal affairs that it hardly made a dent outside of countries that shared a land border with it. Maoism kept China a secondary power of insignificant military capabilities that made the Western powers seek to influence it as Beijing broke away from the Soviet Union from the 1960s onwards. By the end of the 1970s and with the Great Helmsman long dead, and following the disaster known as the Sino-Vietnamese War, China sought to improve its military standing with Western support. Ten years later, the Soviet Union was on the verge of collapse, and China had shown its true self in 1989 at Tiananmen, but that was quickly brushed aside by the West which was still eager to do business with Beijing.
Curiously enough, by the late 20th Century, the one country that had suffered most from the effects of Japanese imperialism from the latter part of the 19th Century all the way to the first half of the 20th Century appeared to ape what Imperial Japan had earlier done. China had set its sights on regional domination. First attempts to do so were in a series of annexations of territory such as Tibet and parts of disputed borders with India. Second was in the attempt to export Maoist ideologies to revolutionary movements worldwide. Third was in declaring maritime areas in East and Southeast Asia as exclusive Chinese waters. China’s tentative steps on the maritime issue led to the invasion of the rest of the Paracel Islands in the early 1970s as South Vietnam was collapsing. Gaining all the Paracel Islands, China had now a better foothold for further expansion into the South China Sea as it began occupying features and rocks there. It made a very overt move from 1994 to 1995 when it seized Panganiban (Mischief) Reef following the earlier withdrawal of the United States from Clark and Subic.
As China’s economy improved by leaps and bounds, spurred on by huge Western investments, Beijing rapidly improved the capabilities of the People’s Liberation Army. Mirroring the Imperial Japanese military experience, the influence of the PLA could be found embedded in all aspects of China’s political and economic structures. However, in contrast to the Japanese experience, the Chinese proved to be more patient. While Japan kept on biting off more than it could chew, the Chinese preferred small nibbles as they carefully built up their air force, navy, and maritime agencies. China removed all pretenses to peaceful intent in the South China Sea when by 2013 onwards it engaged in a rapid and massive expansion and militarization of the structures they had in the area. The creation of artificial man-made islands with airfields capable of handling high performance combat aircraft and harbors for naval vessels had the potential of changing the strategic balance in that waterway – except for one matter, which is the presence of the powerful United States Navy that can overwhelm the Chinese military in a matter of hours in the South China Sea.
That China telegraphed its move in what some say was too early in the day has led to increased vigilance and cooperation among countries affected. Countries like the United States, Japan, and Australia will not just sit idly by and allow China to lord it over. The response now is to establish a multilateral diplomatic and military check on China. China’s response has been to once again chip away at the peripheries as it targeted countries that it deems susceptible and vulnerable. In 2016, one of the first countries to fall to this Chinese response was the Philippines. It seemed like China was on a roll up until the Malaysians threw out their pro-China prime minister, Indonesia hardened its position on its possessions in the South China Sea, and Vietnam continues to remain as the major stumbling block against Chinese expansionism. Meanwhile, the Philippines is neither here nor there, which then suits Beijing’s interests as Manila refuses to seriously challenge China’s inroads not just in the South China Sea but in Philippine society as well.
Is history repeating itself?
So, is it? Are we into a repetitious historical cycle? Is war inevitable between China and the rest of the international community? Is the Third World War going to occur in Asia? During the Cold War, the same was being said about the West and the Warsaw Pact. It was seen as historically destined for war and media would graphically talk about it. However, the reality is in fact more dynamic and not predestined. The Soviet Union collapsed on the weight of political overstretch and economic mismanagement and no global war occurred. The United States emerged from the Cold War as the sole remaining superpower and set its sight on China as a rising regional hegemon only to be distracted by Osama Bin Laden, the War on Terror, Saddam Hussein, and the ill-advised Iraq invasion. China used that American distraction to strengthen itself and feel confident enough to flaunt it by 2013 onwards.
However, China has serious social inequality problems, economic and political weaknesses inherent in a totalitarian state, that it is not wise to conclude that it will definitely overtake the United States. This is not a case of a declining power vis a vis a rising one. It is a case of two countries enmeshed in their respective internal issues as they try to seek ways to maintain or increase their global imprint, and in that context, anything goes.
Still, the thing is, all sides seem to have learned the fundamental lesson of the Pacific War. In the case of the United States and its allies, Japan included, it is to strongly push back against territorial aggression through increased presence, bilateral and multilateral diplomacy, economic engagements, and military modernization. For China, it is to nibble away slowly and surely and to utilize all the wisdom of Sun Tzu and geopolitical opportunism to increase their influence in the region and the rest of the world. – Rappler.com
Jose Antonio Custodio is a security and defense consultant. He specializes in military history and has post-graduate studies in history from the University of the Philippines. He occasionally teaches history and political science in several universities in Metro Manila.