The Japanese, prior to WW2, were an expansionist, imperialist - in the literal sense - local power, one that had liberated itself, so to speak, from fearing the West by their victory over the Russians in 1904. They believed that they were ordained to unify the world under hakko ichiu, or "all 8 corners of the world under 1 roof", with the first step the liberation of Asia from western imperialists.
This was the driving force behind the Japanese war against China. The Japanese had entered China during the Boxer Rebellion (�和�之�). While the Boxer Movement (义和团运动; literally "The Righteous and Harmonious Society Movement") was an anti-imperialist movement based on the domination of China by western powers, it failed to stand in the face of western firepower and a western willingness to spend Chinese lives to achieve their goals of restoring the dynasty. The Japanese were happy to be involved, as it was proof of their acceptance as an advanced country: they contributed close to the half of the western troops involved in the fighting, and indeed Tianjin was liberated by one Col. Kuriya. The Japanese never left China after that: while they only got a small share of reparations - only the US got less - their troops remained in China, and after their victory over Russia in 1904 they took over Russian interests in China, leading to the virtual annexation of Manchuria and ultimately to the Sino-Japanese conflict.
The Japanese were not alone in their interest in the Chinese market, but demanded "paramount interest", akin to monopoly powers over international trade, which were largely opposed by most other nations trading with China, not the least of which was the US. The Japanese use of force to gain their goals in China - the Mukden Incident, for instance, was trumped-up by the Japanese - meant that unless the US was willing to go to war for Chinese markets, sanctions were the alternative.
The only problem was that such sanctions were highly asymmetric: the loss of Japanese markets for US industry was, bluntly, fairly trivial, while the loss of US goods was, for the Japanese, critical. The Japanese imported steel scrap and oil from the US, and both were critically needed for the Japanese war effort.
In other words, Japan declared war on the US because the US had hit it with sanctions that would have forced peace if the sanctions had been allowed to work.
Why did the Japanese, with only a portion of the population of the US, with virtually no raw materials of their own, and with large military, heavily capitalized (they don't call them capital ships for nothing!), declare war on the US?
Because of a monumental error in judgment. The Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in order to destroy the US Pacific Fleet - which almost happened - with the express goal of gaining time to consolidate their growing Asian empire, exploit the natural resources there, and then end up at the negotiating table to work out an end for the war.
Why did the Japanese think this would happen?
Because the Japanese believed, truly believed, that they would carry the upper hand. A wide-spread Japanese prejudice was that America, that polyglot nation that touted its diversity, could not and would not act with a united singular resolve, but rather was a mongrel that spend its time squabbling and bickering, such that it could not and would not be able to react to the singular goal of Japan, which was to dominate Asia and to be the primus inter pares in an "Asia for the Asians". Japan had seen how easy it was to divide the Chinese - which are, in fact, not nearly as homogeneous a folk as the Japanese - and "knew" that the US would be an easy target, with a devastating attack being all it would take to dishearten the American public and to divide the nation. There was plenty of information that supported this thesis: the "America First" movement and the various pacifist groups, along with a large German population that had more than a little sympathy with the National Socialists in Germany.
Given this belief, the Japanese convinced themselves that not only could they win, they would win: the Americans would be forced to accept the "new reality" of Japanese superiority and of course the paramount interests of Japan in Asia.
Now, what is the parallel that I refer to in the title?
Well, there is the obvious one: that anyone reading US internal politics with all its noise, flash and silliness as a way of judging US resolve in dealing with international problems is making the same kind of fatal error. Iran, for instance, can do a one-off attack, coupled with propaganda and terror acts, that could, perhaps under certain circumstances, damage or even sink a US carrier in the Persian Gulf (and don't think that Iran isn't contemplating this: it's probably the key to their war-fighting scenarios...), but it would take a concerted effort by the pacifist components of US society to prevent Iran from being severely pummeled and fundamentally destroyed.
But while it is tempting to run the parallel between Japan of then and Iran of now, the real danger is elsewhere.
Huh? China doesn't even have much of a Navy, let alone one that had any sort of correlation of forces that approaches Japan's correlation with US forces at the beginning of WW2.
But bear with me: it's all about perception.
If you look here, you can see what I mean.
This is the key portion of that analysis - which is based on Chinese sources, not US speculation - with my emphasis and some slight reformatting:
China's experts concede its army would lose a head-on fight, with one senior colonel comparing such a scenario to "throwing an egg against a rock." Instead, the Chinese would attempt what Rand calls an "anti-access" strategy: slowing the deployment of U.S. forces to the Pacific theater, damaging operations within the region and forcing the U.S. to fight from a distance.
"Taking the enemy by surprise," one Chinese military expert wrote, "would catch it unprepared and cause confusion within and huge psychological pressure on the enemy and help [China] win relatively large victories at relatively small costs." Another military volume suggests feigning a large-scale military training exercise to conceal the attack's buildup.
Because the American public is "abnormally sensitive" about military casualties, according to an article in China's Liberation Army Daily, killing U.S. airmen or other personnel would spark a "domestic anti-war cry" on the home front and possibly force early withdrawal of U.S. forces. ("The U.S. experience in Somalia is usually cited in support of this assertion," according to the Rand report.) Once this hard-and-fast assault on U.S. bases commenced, the Chinese army would "swiftly divert" its forces and "guard vigilantly against enemy retaliation," according to a Chinese expert.
The PLA also would likely use less conventional attacks on the American military's vital communications network. The goal, as one Chinese expert put it: leaving U.S. combat capabilities "blind," "deaf" and "paralyzed." Losing early-warning systems designed to detect incoming missiles would be, for the Air Force, the most devastating setback ― one that could force the service to exit the region altogether, according to Rand.
Why, thank you President Clinton for Somalia...
Now do you see the parallel? The Chinese realize that they cannot win a WW2-style war with the US, and hence must attack so that the US is "blind, deaf and paralyzed", allowing the Chinese to real their military/political goals (in this case, the taking of Taiwan), relying on domestic public pressure to stop a US response in its tracks, disheartening the public and dividing the nation.
This is extremely dangerous: the parallels are clear, at least in my mind. The same kind of "Pearl Harbor" isn't possible anymore, but I think what the Chinese are thinking is that they would start an invasion of Taiwan under cover of a large-scale exercise and that if US carriers came any where near, they'd be attacked with massed ballistic missile attacks: after all, you only need one hit, and if the Chinese could take out one carrier with each 100 ballistic missiles - no nukes here - then they'd be happy to. A given the Chinese build-up of medium-range ballistic missiles around Taiwan - right now estimates place the number of such missiles anywhere from 300 to more than 800 - in Fujian province, and you can see the risks of a "sudden" non-nuclear first strike that would be damned hard to avoid: having 100 ballistic missiles inbound can cover a lot of sea space, and it may not be possible for a carrier to maneuver its way out of such a tactical situation.Now, why would China do such a thing?
Simple: it is heavily, heavily dependent on foreign trade. It gets 60% of its energy from the Persian Gulf; as long as the US can control the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea, Chinese economic growth is held hostage to US military might (if you are paranoid and see the world this way: in reality, the Chinese benefit enormously form the fact that the US help control piracy in the region...).
For the new mandarins in China, it must be galling to realize that the China trade exists under the sufferance of the US Navy. Given their attitude of cultural superiority, eerily similar to that of Japan in many aspects, then the parellels become even more disturbing...