Matthew Penn: Obama policy could repeat U.S. mistakes in the Pacific

December 10, 2013 

On Saturday, the 72nd anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, memorial services honored the lives of over 2,400 people who died in that battle. After the attack, America entered into the deadliest war in human history.

Unfortunately, recent events in the Pacific have demonstrated that our political and military leaders have failed to learn from that "day that will live in infamy."

The Obama administration is engaging in a dangerous foreign policy, the "Pivot to the Pacific," which could lead to conflict with another major Asian power: China.

Americans have had an interest in East Asia since the mid-19th century's Open Door Policy in China, and the three major wars our country has fought in the region.

The major power in East Asia is now China, not Japan. Today, Americans are concerned about Chinese military expansion in the South China Sea as Americans once worried about Japanese military expansion in East Asia. Instead of responding with prudent diplomacy to preserve peace, our government has responded with the same paranoid and jingoistic tactics that ultimately led to war in 1941.

America has long maintained a military presence in the Pacific since the Spanish-American War brought the Philippines under the control of our government. American businesses had economic interests in China, and the government sought to protect these interests from encroachment by European powers. The Open Door Policy was similar to today's free trade deals. The U.S. discouraged European powers and Japan from engaging in, or forcing the Chinese government to engage in, protectionist economic policies that favored one nation over another.

A naval arms race ensued between America and the colonial powers, each attempting to build powerful navies to protect their own business interests in East Asia.

To prevent conflict, the Five Power Treaty was designed to limit European, American and Japanese naval expansion and banned the construction of new military fortifications in the Pacific.

Ultimately, the United States and the other major powers failed to enforce this treaty, as well as other treaties designed to ensure peace in East Asia.

Japan invaded Manchuria in 1931 and eventually all of eastern China in 1937. The United States failed to respond to these extreme acts of military aggression, which only encouraged imperial Japan to continue their conquest of East Asia. It was not until Japan invaded Indo-China that America imposed a crippling oil embargo

By that time, so many men had been lost and so much money had been spent in China that the imperial government preferred war to abandoning their colonies in East Asia.

While the oil embargo did not justify the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, it would not be fair to call the attack completely unprovoked by American foreign policy. Had the United States imposed an oil embargo when Japan first expanded into Manchuria, before the Empire of Japan had so much invested in China, the Japanese government might have withdrawn from China in 1931 and further conflict could have been prevented.

The "Pivot to the Pacific" policy reeks of the same military expansionism of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. To promote free trade, the Trans-Pacific Partnership binds the U.S. to its allies in the Pacific in the same way the Open Door Policy bound it to China.

The United States military is rebuilding and expanding existing World War II bases in the Pacific to contain China, echoing the naval buildup of the 1920s and 1930s meant to contain Japan.

If we want to contain military aggression by another major power; it should be done to protect human rights and prevent war, not just so businessmen can maintain access to foreign markets.

The prevention of aggression also requires that all parties reduce their military commitments and their armaments, not increase them. Finally, the international community as a whole will need to respond quickly and effectively to all acts of aggression to prevent the escalation of any conflict.

I agree that the United States cannot afford to return to the isolationism of the 1930s, but neither can it maintain costly and open-ended military commitments. The United States failed to prevent war with imperial Japan through military containment. Why should we expect the same policies to work with China?

Matthew David Penn of Lexington holds a masters degree in history.

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