Recently I ran my mouth, as I am wont to do, during a dinner discussion with some clients and stated that I believed with a fair degree of certainty that we would go to war with the Peoples Republic of China within the next twenty years. Somewhat taken aback, as most civilians are at my refusal to share in their naive belief that peace is the natural condition of nations vis-a-vis each other, they asked why I would even consider that a possibility. I answered by saying that we would go to war with China for much the same reasons we went to war with Japan in 1941. The incredulous reply was, "They're going to bomb Pearl Harbor?"
Unfortunately, that inane response is exactly the type we should expect from a product of American school systems, in which the teaching of history is limited to events' dates and associated names with no critical examination of the underlying causes of those events. Most Americans' understanding of the cause of our war with Japan (1941 to 1945) is limited to the Japanese pre-emptive attack on our Pacific military forces and facilities in early December of 1941, as if the Japanese leadership woke up with a sake hangover one morning in mid-November 1941 and decided to send their fleet to destroy ours in Hawaii. The actual reasons for our conflict with Japan date back several decades prior to the "date that will live in infamy."
Japan really came of age on the world scene 104 years ago with a victory over the Russians in a war in which trench warfare, use of machine guns and barbed wire, and battleship engagements presaged the battles of the First World War. The Treaty of Versailles at the conclusion of WWI stripped Germany of its colonial possessions in the South Pacific and granted control of many of those islands to Japan. We had previously seized control of the Hawaiian Islands (in 1893) and wrested control of the Philippines and Guam from Spain (in 1898), and control of the Pacific was now an American--Japanese contest. American military planners saw the imminence of war with an increasingly imperialistic and expansionist Japan as early as 1920 and by 1922 had developed War Plan Orange as our strategy for a war in the Pacific with the Empire of Japan. The first "disarmament conference" in modern history resulted in the Washington Naval Treaty of 1922 and placed limits on signatories' (the U.S., U.K, Japan, France and Italy) capital ship construction. The US specifically sought to limit Japanese battleship construction and Japan (grasping the war-changing nature of airpower) built aircraft carriers on the capital keels already laid. Further, we missed the point that Japan's expansionist designs on Manchuria and China were as important to her as her Pacific naval capability, and after Japan invaded China in the mid-1930's, we reacted with economic sanctions aimed at throttling Japan's access to industrial resources (oil, iron, and rubber; prominently). Japan's atrocities in China were followed shortly thereafter by Hitler's invasion of Eastern Europe and by 1939 the world was at war (the United States involved as a "neutral" providing war material and support to Great Britain, and later the USSR following Germany's invasion of Russia).
So, Japan's aerial attack on our bases in Hawaii and the Philippines on December 7/8, 1941 may have been the proximate event that led to our formal declaration of war on Japan, but our participation in what became known as the Second World War had been going on in a support role for nearly three years, and the seeds for our war with Japan had been planted as far back as the end of the previous century. In the end, it was all about who would exercise hegemony in the Pacific--Japan or the United States. And so it is today with China.
For the first 50 years of its existence the People's Liberation Army, while huge, was laughable with regard to military capability. When politicians began to hyperventilate in the early 90's about the possibility of a PRC invasion of Taiwan, US military professionals derisively dismissed the potential as "the million-man swim." The Chicoms didn't have a significant amphibious capability. Today they do.
Twenty years ago, the People's Liberation Army Navy (how about that for an oxymoronic appellation?) had little capability to counter US naval power in their own littorals, let alone across the Pacific. Today, the PLAN is strong enough to stand toe-to-toe with the US Navy anywhere in the Pacific. They are even building aircraft carriers. Their growing fleet of nuclear powered ballistic missile submarines will soon expand their land-based ICBM threat to our West Coast to include a credible nuclear threat to our entire homeland.
At current rates of economic growth the PRC's GDP will eclipse that of the United States sometime in the next decade. PRC presence and influence worldwide, in places once the United States' unrivaled stomping grounds (particularly since the fall of the Soviet Union) is growing alarmingly. Case in point: our attempt to establish an Africa Command HQ on the dark continent. Every "friendly" African nation we have approached to allow us to establish this "equivalent" to EUCOM and PACOM, has given us a polite "No, thank you." Ten years ago, there would have been a wild competition among several African nations for the honor of hosting such a Command. Today, the PRC (flush with cash from American markets) lines the pockets of those nations' decision-makers and whispers promises of swelling Swiss bank accounts for continued refusals of US overtures. And, oh, by the way, Africa is kinda important to us because that continent provides over 95% of the world's supply of raw materials necessary for the production of critical strategic materials like titanium--used in nearly every advanced weapon system we possess.
To those who would point to the Beijing Olympics this summer as proof that China is learning to play nice in the world, I would remind that Hitler's Germany hosted the Olympics in 1936.