Rule the Sea, Build Alliances, and Sweat the Small Stuff

Why Tokyo and Beijing are still fighting a war that began in 1894.

With all eyes locked on Iraq and Ukraine, China and Japan keep ratcheting up tensions over islands and waters in the East China Sea. On June 11, two Japanese planes flew dangerously close to a Chinese plane -- with both sides blaming the other for the encounter. This follows an incident in late May, when armed Chinese fighter planes buzzed Japanese maritime patrol aircraft, passing within 100 feet in one case -- a hand's breadth for high-speed aircraft. In mid-June, China Defense Ministry spokesman Col. Geng Yansheng blustered that Japanese airmen have "engaged in close-up tailing" of Chinese aircraft, revealing Tokyo's "malign intentions" and exposing its "hypocrisy and two-facedness in relations with China."

Minor encounters such as these can explode into major problems between nations, and a clash of the Asian titans is far from unthinkable. And perhaps it's no coincidence that this year marks the 120th anniversary of the conflict that started it all: the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895. That's when a makeshift Japanese navy crushed China's, allowing Imperial Japan to wrest land and a boatload of cash from China's Qing Dynasty.

Strategists across East Asia are investigating that long-ago conflict for lessons relevant to today's controversies. The first lesson is geopolitical: that limited conflicts can deliver sweeping gains. The 1894 Battle of Yalu -- a minor duel between Chinese and Japanese battle fleets -- gave Japan command of the Yellow and East China seas. The Treaty of Shimonoseki, signed in Japan in April 1895, compelled China's rulers to relinquish Taiwan and its outlying islands, territory along the Asian coast, and to pay a massive indemnity to Japan. No longer could China oppose Japanese military movement up and down the Asian seaboard. With maritime command, then, came dominance of Northeast Asia.

Beijing would like to reset the terms of this geopolitical status quo. Indeed, as my colleague Sally Paine noted in her masterful 2002 history of this half-forgotten war, ever since 1895 "the focus of Chinese foreign policy has been to undo its results whereas the focus of Japanese foreign policy has been to confirm them." Seems the old military maxim holds true: no war is over until the vanquished agree it's over.

While the Senkaku/Diaoyu -- the tiny islands in the East China Sea that are the locus of today's conflict -- weren't formally part of the settlement, Japan did occupy them in 1895. To Chinese eyes, consequently, wrenching it back probably looks like a good first step toward repealing an unjust peace settlement, reversing Japanese adventurism, and avenging an old defeat.

Which leads to the second lesson: even though the territories concerned are small, the stakes are huge for the contestants. The struggle for mastery is about more than material interests. It's about national honor and renown, motives sure to fire passions on both sides. The war's outcome was a political symbol as much as it was an operational defeat for China. Indeed, the fleet action at the Yalu upended the regional order. Vanquishing China's navy  signified the Middle Kingdom's fall from atop the regional order after centuries of primacy. Just as humiliating, it announced Japan's arrival as top gun in Asia.

Beijing is obsessed with turning the world right-side-up again. The debacle still rankles with China, even after 120 years and several regime changes, while democratic Japan intends to lock in the status quo. Both Tokyo and Beijing attach enormous value to their material interests and their international standing -- and are prepared to pay dearly for those interests in lives, treasure, and military hardware.

Ergo, the third lesson: for great powers, sea power is the keystone of national status as well as an implement for defending offshore interests. Great powers need great navies to fulfill their destinies. Japan's emperor decreed that the island nation would modernize following the Meiji Restoration of 1868. From then it took shipwrights about two decades to bolt together a battle fleet from a hodgepodge of imported boilers, guns, and other components. Tokyo's Frankenfleet then took to the seas to humble an established -- and what conventional wisdom considered a superior -- Qing fleet.

Sea power clearly matters. For contemporary Tokyo and Beijing, then, the Sino-Japanese War's outcome reaffirms the need to press ahead with naval construction. China has built advanced destroyers, large numbers of missile-armed diesel submarines, and its first aircraft carrier, all backed up by shore-based combat aircraft and anti-ship missiles able to strike hundreds of miles out to sea. Japan has taken halting steps to match China's progress, bulking up its world-class submarine force while undertaking its first increase in defense spending in more than a decade -- though China's far larger military budget is growing much faster. Tokyo has also reached out to the Philippines, Vietnam, and other Asian coastal states embroiled in territorial disputes with Beijing -- coalition partners can pool their resources while pushing back against Beijing politically.

To be sure, there are limits to history as a guide to warmaking, especially with regards to tactics and hardware. And of course, time and technological advances have transformed the face of naval warfare over the past 120 years. A conflict pitting fleets of armored steamers against each other offers few pointers on how ultramodern navies packing guided missiles and fighter jets should wage war. Beyond the need to concentrate superior naval might at the decisive place and time, the Sino-Japanese War has little to teach about tactics. Understandably, then, few Japanese or Chinese commentators say much about this dimension of the war. History speaks mainly to the larger political and strategic purposes for which nations fight on the high seas. The lesson, now as then: the nation that rules the sea amasses vast economic and geopolitical leverage over its rivals.

What about lessons unlearned? Is Japan or China missing something, or learning false lessons that might distort its strategy? One lesson Japan has learned, but to which China appears indifferent, is the value of alliances. The Sino-Japanese War was a one-on-one affair. But France, Germany, and Russia intervened diplomatically after the war to strip Japan of its newly won holdings in north China. Europeans fretted that a dominant Japan would lock the imperial powers out of the China trade and otherwise upend the regional power balance.

That was bad enough from Japan's standpoint. But Russia subsequently grabbed some of Japan's gains for itself -- notably the stronghold at Port Arthur, the maritime gateway to northern China.

To avoid a repeat of this humiliation, Tokyo concluded an alliance with Britain before initiating the next round of fighting, against Russia in 1904-1905. While it didn't take up arms, Britain did close the Suez Canal to the Russian Navy, compelling Moscow's naval reinforcements to steam 20,000 miles around Africa, through the Indian Ocean, and into Far Eastern waters to do battle. The detour so enfeebled the Russian Baltic Fleet that it made easy pickings for the Imperial Japanese Navy at the climactic Battle of Tsushima Strait, named after the narrow sea between Japan and the Korean Peninsula. In 1905, Japan regained the territory it had lost to great-power intervention in 1895, and humbled a European imperial power in the bargain.

Alliances, it seems, can pay off handsomely. That's Strategy 101, and a lesson the postwar security alliance with the United States has reconfirmed for Japan time and again. China, by contrast, stands aloof from its East Asian neighbors even on its best days. On its haughtier days -- most of the time, lately -- China goes out of its way to browbeat and sometimes threaten them. That's no way to win friends and allies.

Chinese commentaries on the Sino-Japanese War, furthermore, reveal an apparent blind spot toward the human factor in naval warfare. Strategists grudgingly concede Imperial Japan's impressive accomplishments in the material realm. But at the same time they tend to scapegoat rather than admit the enemy outthought or outfought China. They hunt for culprits within the Qing government or naval establishment. The tenor of such critiques: Japan can't possibly have won, ergo China must have lost.

For instance, opinion-makers long faulted Chinese naval commanders for tactical and technical malpractice. Some senior officers of China's military, the People's Liberation Army (PLA), now want to exonerate Qing commanders, and instead blame the Qing Dynasty itself. Bureaucratic institutions, they maintain, were backward, inflexible, and unable to keep up with an inferior but dynamic Meiji Japan. Shifting the blame to Qing mandarins restores luster to China's maritime traditions that reach back into the dynastic age.

Whatever the truth of this reappraisal, criticizing a dead Chinese regime slights Imperial Japanese Navy seamanship, gunnery, and sheer élan. Sometimes one contender loses not because of its own fecklessness but because the other side fights better. Refusal to acknowledge Japan's past superiority in the human dimension hints at China's contempt toward its rival in the present day. And as Japan's Self-Defense Forces don't often trumpet their power, PLA Navy battle-worthiness could suffer from myopia.

Shortsightedness aside, Beijing has the intellectual and emotional edge on this one. Japan learned the lessons catalogued here long ago, and thus may be complacent. Modern-day Japanese researchers are few compared to Chinese strategists combing through history for insights. Why the disparity? Maybe defeat and dishonor concentrate the mind, while guarding a longstanding status quo deadens it. Maybe resolving to take something from someone else lights a fire in the belly in a way that holding what one already possesses doesn't. Either way, Beijing simply seems to want it more.

How the belligerents read history won't decide a short, sharp war should one transpire in the East China Sea. But history could make a difference by fixing attention on naval development -- and stirring the mad blood in Beijing and Tokyo.

Soe Than WIN/AFP/Getty Images

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Learning from Crimea

Western governments are right to insist on the territorial integrity of Ukraine and Georgia. But that shouldn't stop them from building ties to contested regions.

On May 28, as Western policymakers and pundits lauded Petro Poroshenko's decisive triumph in Ukraine's presidential election, thousands of demonstrators poured into the streets of Sukhumi, the capital of the self-declared independent state of Abkhazia in northwest Georgia. The activists demanded the resignation of Abkhazian leader Alexander Ankvab over allegations of corruption within his government as well as the stagnant economy. Within hours, reports surfaced that Ankvab had fled the capital and that the government of Abkhazia was on the verge of collapse. Days later, Ankvab formally resigned. Russia, Abkhazia's main ally and patron, offered to negotiate an orderly political resolution. The United States and the European Union were unable to do anything at all.

Given recent events in Ukraine (and the ensuing debate over Russia's involvement in post-Soviet states), this situation might have offered an opportunity for the United States to publicly comment on these governance issues and signal an interest in the political concerns of these contested areas. But due to an ineffective foreign policy, the United States and its Western allies had no relationship with the faction that precipitated the uprising against Ankvab -- or, for that matter, Ankvab himself -- and now Abkhazia has seemingly moved even closer to Russia than before.

Brussels and Washington have long refused to cultivate any ties to Abkhazia's de facto government, not to mention the breakaway region's opposition parties, civil society organizations, and media outlets. That's because Western governments have been loath to do anything that might imply recognition of the separatist government's claims to legitimacy -- claims that have been thoroughly rejected by Georgia, whose territorial integrity is strongly supported by the European Union and the United States. But this position has effectively left the West without interlocutors or influence in places like Abkhazia.

More deeply, the framework through which Washington has conducted its foreign relations with post-Soviet states -- strengthening their "sovereignty and independence" by championing integration into Western institutions and international norms -- is now showing its own strategic contradictions and practical flaws. An aggressive and disruptive Moscow has exploited regional and ethnic minorities to dismember both Georgia and Ukraine, turning portions of both countries into Russian dependencies. A new Western approach must recognize the nuances of these long-standing conflicts and embrace a more holistic engagement; that is the first step toward rebuilding Western leverage and influence.

Crimea and Abkhazia both have troubled relationships with the countries they landed in after independence. In general, their populations feel more favorably toward Russia than the rest of the country of which they are nominally part. The 2008 Georgia-Russia war precipitated Moscow's recognition of the independent statehood of Abkhazia and South Ossetia (another breakaway region), but Georgia had not exercised real sovereignty over its breakaway territories since the early months of its post-Soviet independence. Yet according to most interpretations of international law, as well as the views of all but a handful of countries, Abkhazia was and remains a part of Georgia. After Abkhazia declared its independence at the end of that war, the Georgian government passed a U.S.-backed, highly counterproductive "law on occupied territories" that banned outsiders from any unauthorized dealings with the breakaways. In the meantime, Russia effectively absorbed both Abkhazia and South Ossetia by means of a number of "bilateral treaties" through which Moscow effectively took control over their most important functions and institutions.

Both Abkhazia and South Ossetia are home to ethnic groups that have little in common with Russians but harbor long-standing grievances against the Georgian central government. Most of the population of Crimea, by contrast, consists of ethnic Russians and Russian speakers. (Crimea was part of the Russian Soviet Socialist Republic until 1954, when Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev gave it to Ukraine.)

Russia's security presence in Crimea has remained strong since 1991, not least because of the stationing of thousands of Russian troops (including special forces) as part of the Black Sea Fleet at Sevastopol. When Russian backed-forces annexed the territory for Russia in February, it was a land grab that clearly violated broader international law and a specific 1994 pledge by Moscow to respect Ukraine's sovereignty. But it worked. This could only have happened in the context of this region's complicated history. Most residents of Abkhazia and Crimea, when faced with pro-Western central governments with an integration agenda, strongly backed Russian intervention and changes to their sovereign status. The United States happily ignored these histories and aspirations.

Instead, in Abkhazia the United States adopted a policy of strategic patience (StratPat). StratPat consisted of helping Georgia develop into a prosperous and democratic country under the assumption that once this happened the people of Abkhazia would naturally want to rejoin Georgia. In practice, therefore, StratPat meant doing nothing -- certainly not building relationships with anyone in Abkhazia. Washington confined itself to issuing highly critical official statements that counterproductively denied the legitimacy of elections carried out in the territory. In Crimea, the approach was less dramatic, but the region was always treated by the United States as mostly just another part of eastern Ukraine.

U.S. policy toward much of the former Soviet Union has been framed by the twin goals of strengthening the sovereignty and independence of the 15 post-Soviet states. Although the West has publicly denied that such a policy was "anti-Russia," the West's policies have, when possible, promoted the integration of these states into Western institutions such as NATO and the EU. In Baltic and other Eastern European states in the late 1990s and early 2000s, this policy worked, largely because these small states were substantially pro-Western and did not have internal breakaway territories. Equally significantly, Russia was not the global or even regional power in the 1990s that it is today.

But the very success in these states promoted misunderstandings and flawed judgments when it came to the more contested regions in Ukraine and the Caucasus. In Georgia, this involved promoting what was always a purely aspirational sovereignty over the breakaway regions, rather than playing the role of a broker or conflict mediator. Efforts to fold these contested territories into Georgia through a pro-Western integration process simply ignored the needs and wants of Abkhazians. According to survey results, 79 percent of ethnic Abkhazians preferred to remain an independent state, with a small minority (19 percent) preferring to be incorporated into the Russian Federation; support for integration with Georgia was negligible. Even among ethnic Georgian respondents, only half believed that the economic situation was better in Georgia, while a plurality (48 percent) expressed a preference for remaining a part of an independent Abkhazia, a finding that the authors attribute to "unattractiveness of the other options." Western policy also misjudged the willingness of Moscow to openly meddle and militarily support Russian-speaking constituencies within these breakaway regions. As a result, Georgia and, now, Ukraine have strengthened neither their sovereignty nor their independence.

In the diplomatic arena, the United States has been instrumental in helping Georgia thwart Abkhazia's aspirations for statehood. Let's make no mistake: This is the right diplomatic course for the United States to pursue, as Abkhaz independence would legitimize Russian aggression and the breaking apart of sovereign states by force. However, taking this firm diplomatic approach does not preclude a more nuanced approach to engagement with Abkhaz society. Despite the United States' strong relationship with the governments in Tbilisi and Kiev, few American officials have even been to Abkhazia, while the number of Abkhaz who have had significant contact with the West is minuscule. This is not true of Crimea, but historically the West viewed ethnic Russians in Crimea as an obstacle that needed to be managed. In both cases, the West lacked the knowledge and relationships to craft a timely and effective response.

The West's failure to take history into account weakened its response in Crimea and has already had ripple effects in the region. Ankvab's resignation happened less than a month before Georgia is scheduled to sign an association agreement with the EU, and only a few months before an important NATO summit for Tbilisi, where the question of whether Georgia will receive a Membership Action Plan is expected to be discussed. Ukraine is a reminder that these association agreements and NATO aspirations do not sit well with Russia. It is possible that pro-Russian insurgents in Abkhazia chose this moment because it may disrupt, or at least complicate, the EU association agreement. Disrupting Georgia's association process will not be easy because the small state is relatively far along and enjoys strong support for Europe from its population. Nevertheless, turmoil in Abkhazia and South Ossetia on the eve of Tbilisi's EU association agreement, scheduled to be signed on June 27, or an announcement regarding South Ossetia's change of status should surprise nobody.

Meanwhile, de facto authorities in South Ossetia, a much smaller territory, have viewed Russia's annexation of Crimea as an opportunity to renew their public pleas to be formally absorbed by Russia. The seeming victory of the pro-Russian annexation party United Ossetia in Sunday's parliamentary elections also has raised the prospect of the de facto authorities in Tskhinvali organizing a Crimea-like referendum on joining Russia this summer.

Predictably, in the West, little is known about Abkhazia's new president, Valery Bganba. He is, however, believed to be aligned with Raul Khadzhimba, who has strong anti-Georgia feelings, increasing the possibility of more tension between Abkhazia and the rest of Georgia, or between Abkhaz and ethnic Georgian communities in Abkhazia. These events in Abkhazia should lead the United States to rethink its Abkhazia policy and recognize that knowing very little about, and having very few relationships in, a potentially important part of the post-Soviet region can lead to problems. We have already seen that paying no attention to Abkhazia has pushed it closer to Russia and made Georgia's territorial integrity less likely as time passes.

Gaps in U.S. post-Soviet policy do not excuse Russian aggression, and Moscow is likely to pay a high price for its military actions and support of its political clients. Nonetheless, the demonstrations in Abkhazia -- and the West's inability to do anything about them -- should encourage the United States and its NATO allies to rethink some terms of their post-Soviet engagement. Of course, NATO must keep its security commitments to its allies, and Russia should not be allowed to run roughshod over sovereign states. In the future, however, the United States must think far more creatively (as it did in the Balkans) about approaches that will lead to genuine power-sharing and conflict resolution. In Ukraine, this might mean the decentralization or selective federalism promoted by Switzerland and the OSCE. In countries like Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine, the United States must begin to forge civic and educational ties to communities in contested territories that it has long ignored. U.S. officials would do well to realize that failure to promote such ties will ultimately prove counterproductive to the aims that they hope to achieve.

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