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Bo Xilai's "Tiger" Generals Take Warrior Path of Japan’s Imperial Officers

Posted: Apr 26, 2012

The Beijing leadership circle -- now that the power bid by ousted Chongqing party chief Bo Xilai has been quelled -- is trying to tamp down the controversy and align all factions toward the coming leadership transition. Although Bo's wings have been clipped, the factional struggle bears strong similarities to Japan of the 1930s.

Then as now, the geopolitical challenge for both Asian nations involved a rising industrial economy with an ambiguous strategic role and growing military force facing off against the traditional Western powers, which maintained a de facto stranglehold on global energy and mineral resources.

Go It Alone or Collision Course

Against the unspoken dirty war by Western powers, Beijing today and Tokyo yesterday were presented with two divergent options, equally daunting: to establish an autarkic economic bloc within the Asian sphere or to steer onto a collision course aimed at global parity through maritime expansion. Consequently, the land armies of both societies tended to opt for the first scenario, of separation from the global economy in favor of nationalist consolidation.

For the Japanese imperial forces, this meant establishing the Manchukuo colonial state in China’s far northeast. For Bo Xilai's coterie of generals -- Bo has lifelong friendships with leading military families, since his father Yibo was one of Chairman Mao's most valiant generals in the anti-Japanese struggle -- it has meant the reinforcement of the Southeast Command headquartered in the Chongqing-Chengdu corridor, which controls the nation's strategic nuclear forces.

Bo was fond of reading and applying the lessons of the classic novel "The Three Kingdoms," which chronicled the rise of Shu (Sichuan and Chongqing) as the impregnable third hub of power in China, versus the wealthy south and politically strong North. The citadal of Chongqing, which overlooks the upper Yangtze River, has stood the test of time, up to its role as homefield for the ferocious Flying Tigers air corps that turned back the Japanese invasion.

As the core city-state within China, the region faces off against the only major potential adversary, the colossus with feet of clay that is India.

For China's new naval forces along the Pacific Coast, however, the challenge is to establish parity in warships and weaponry, and possibly dominance, over the Western sea powers. In the early part of the 20th century, the Imperial Japanese Navy sought to break out of the London Naval Accords and the Anglo-Japanese Alliance - which allotted Japan an inferior quota of naval tonnage as compared with Britain and the US. The Japanese game plan was to develop naval air power aboard aircraft carriers, a new technology in that era.

Likewise, the modernized PLA naval forces view the development of a Blue Ocean fleet as an utmost priority focused on launching advanced submarines and missile cruisers. Hainan Island, south of Guangdong Province, is the fortress of China's resurgent naval power.

Window to The World

China’s next likely leader, Xi Jinping, has served as party chief of the socially and economically progressive commercial ports of Xiamen and Guangzhou, centers of international trade and naval power.

Along the Pacific, an ocean of prosperity and sometimes peace, the outlook of the new corps of naval officers is, like their earlier Japanese counterparts, liberal in temperament and "internationalist." Although the Vietnamese, Filipinos and Japanese are angered over maritime disputes with China, what also stands out is the self-discipline and prudence of Chinese navy officers so far in avoiding seagoing warfare or landing marines.

Then and now, Asian naval power might appear to be the overarching immediate threat to Western interests, but in reality a balance of power - along with an international maritime security accord - can be negotiated and resolved. The actual danger, as demonstrated in the Japanese Army's Manchurian takeover, comes from the ultra-nationalism of land-based soldiers - the spirit of the warrior out to destroy the corrupt merchants.

China’s land-army officers have been quelled -- for now. But, like the radical young Japanese officers of a generation ago, their sense of alienation can shift toward assassination politics. Already, the elderly officer who several years ago attempted to blow up President Hu Jintao's ship during an inspection tour of Liaoning Province has his young admirers.

The elite navy officers, though now favored as recipients of the lion's share of China's expanding budget for military modernization, lack the critical mass of sheer numerical support and populist enthusiasm in the country's interior.

Despite outward appearances, the center of gravity in military power can shift overnight.

Fatal Crises

When the Great Depression eroded support for Japan's liberal politicians and the Navy, militant army officers took ever-bolder direct action to cut down their commanders and leaders of the civilian establishment. Finally, the young radicals precipitated the Manchurian crisis and then, in 1937, the Marco Polo bridge incident, plunging Japan, despite its military inferiority and resource scarcity, into the Pacific War.

Does history repeat itself? Bo Xilai’s power grab has failed, but the underlying sources of instability and dissension will remain a cause of political anxiety for decades to come. Although several garrison commanders in the Southwest front have close friendships with Bo -- who has a residence on a high-security military base outside Chengdu -- their troops have remained inside the barracks since his downfall. The only abrasive incident was a minor skirmish between pro-Bo police agents and a high-level guards unit in central Beijing.

Future scenarios depend on the global recession and on any number of trigger points, for example, a face-losing outcome on Taiwanese reunification or a spectacular defeat for control of the Southern Islands (Spratleys and Paracels). An exchange of fire with the Japanese fleet off the disputed Diaoyu-Senkaku islets could also ignite an earthshaking upheaval within China, with global ramifications.

Given China’s internal dynamics, Western powers, Japan and the Asian neighborhood must pay heed to history. A rising power, with its newly revived pride and expanding need for energy and raw materials, should be recognized as the world power that it is and still to become, and not checked and harassed by a covert campaign of resource-denial, tantamount to sanctions. The recent creation of the Pentagon's clandestine intelligence service specifically aimed against China and Iran points toward a more robust campaign to interdict energy and raw materials.

The fall of Bo Xilai temporarily lifts the threat of an army coup and radical turn in foreign policy, yet still many officers skeptical of the corruption charges against their comrade remain at their posts. Thus, if the West pushes China into an ever-tighter corner, the liberal navy could be forced to fall in line with the conservative army, as happened when Japanese naval pilots zeroed in on the USS Arizona at Pearl Harbor, initiating the bloodiest foreign war in American history.

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