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Victor Davis Hanson: China following Japanese model of 1930s

| Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2017, 9:00 p.m.
Delegates listen to the Internationale at the end of the closing session of the 19th Communist Party Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Oct. 24, 2017.
AFP/Getty Images
Delegates listen to the Internationale at the end of the closing session of the 19th Communist Party Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Oct. 24, 2017.

In October, Chinese President Xi Jinping offered a Soviet-style five-year plan for China's progress at the Communist Party congress in Beijing. Despite his talk of global cooperation, the themes were familiar socialist boilerplate about Chinese economic and military superiority to come.

Implicit were echoes of the themes of the 1930s: A rising new Asian power would protect the region and replace declining Western influence. Xi promised that Chinese patronage offered a new option for his neighbors “to speed up their development while preserving their independence.” Sound familiar?

In the 1930s, Imperial Japan tried to square the same circle of importing Western technology while deriding the West. It deplored Western influence in Asia while claiming its own influence in the region was more authentic.

Only about 60 years after the so-called Meiji Restoration, Japan shocked the West by becoming one of the great industrial and military powers of the world. Depressed by the superior technology and wealth of Western visitors, late-19th-century Japan entered a breakneck race to create entire new industries — mining, energy, steel — out of nothing.

It sent tens of thousands of students to European and American universities and military colleges. They returned home with world-class expertise in aviation, nautical architecture and ballistics. The Japanese copied the most promising designs of European and American military technology and applied trademark Japanese craftsmanship and government support to make bigger, better weapons.

After Japan invaded Manchuria and later, mainland China, Tokyo seemed to assume that conquered Asian peoples resented not imperialism in general as much as Western imperialism. Supposedly, Asian neighbors would see Japanese exploitation as at least being in the family of the wider Asian community.

The Japanese Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere was officially born in June 1940 to mask Japanese aggression in Manchuria and mainland China, to take over French Indochina a few months later, and to plan a pre-emptive war against Britain and the United States. Planning to have control over the oil riches of the Dutch East Indies (modern Indonesia), the rubber of Malaysia and the mineral wealth of China and Burma, Japan sought complete independence from the West with a so-called “yen bloc” of subservient states.

Satellite Asian clients were expected to overlook Japanese bullying and imperialism in exchange for the advantages of trickle-down wealth from a rising Japanese economy and the paternalistic security offered by the Imperial Japanese Navy and ground forces.

In truth, Japan's Asian subjects soon hated Tokyo even more than they did London or Washington. Yet they made concessions to Japan only because Western appeasement and isolationism precluded active resistance to Japan's rising sun — at least until Pearl Harbor.

China is currently following the Japanese model. Its miraculous transformation from a peasant subsistence culture is even more impressive than was Japan's.

In our arrogance and complacency, we once scoffed at the Japanese and their idea of the first Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere — and then suffered what followed.

Are we doing the same thing some 75 years later?

Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.

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