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China territorial disputes: a warning in the history of Imperial Japan

The emerging Japan of the 1920s and ’30s, like today’s China, was steeped in historic resentment of the West’s forcible imposition of commercial and cultural influence. Both countries set about building military capabilities commensurate with their new economic prowess.

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Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi, right, talks with US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton after attending a press conference in Beijing Sept. 5. Op-ed contributors Joseph A. Bosco and Wallace C. “Chip” Gregson write: 'Whether the US is led by a President Obama or President Romney, America will have to find the resources and diplomacy to continue its regional collaboration in Asia – ensuring that, this time, the outcome will be something better than war.'

Feng Li/AP/pool

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Some China scholars have begun to accuse Beijing of “salami tactics” in seeking to seize gradual control of the South China Sea. The term evokes disturbing echoes of Nazi Germany’s incremental aggression until it was ready for all-out war.

Applying World War II terminology to China’s current behavior may seem overblown, but it is apt. In fact, China’s actions also resemble those of another bad actor of that tragic period: Imperial Japan.

The emerging Japan of the 1920s and ’30s, like today’s China, was steeped in historic resentment of the West’s forcible imposition of commercial and cultural influence. Even as Western interaction hugely benefited Japan’s economy then and China’s now, both countries set about building military capabilities commensurate with their new economic prowess.

Naked military power was seen by Imperial Japan, as it is by the Communist Party in China, as necessary to defend and expand industrial achievements and economic influence against hostile Western nations, most notably the United States.

After attacking and annexing Manchuria on the basis of a minor pretext in 1931, Japanese forces extended their invasion into China proper. By the end of the 1930s, Tokyo was ready to look beyond its controlled land area comprising the home islands, Korea, Taiwan, and much of China.

On August 1, 1940, Japanese Foreign Minister Yosuke Matsuoka announced his government’s intention to establish a “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere” under Japan’s physical and/or political control and free of Western influence. It would include the former European colonies of Southeast Asia – what Tokyo called the Southern Regions – and the Pacific Islands.

The Co-Prosperity Sphere would provide a supply of regional raw materials and energy resources to ensure Japanese self-sufficiency while enabling Japan to control the world’s access to these vital areas and commercial routes.

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