The strategic rivalry between China and the US has incited an outbreak of historical analogies -- Athens versus Sparta, the UK versus Wilhelmine Germany, or the US versus the Soviet Union. But the fracas over the US actions against Huawei Technologies recalls another antecedent: the pre-World War II US pressure campaign against Japan.
Once again, the US faces an aggrieved Asian power seeking to claim its place in the geopolitical sun, displace the US from Asia, transcend its economic dependency on the West and rewrite international rules to advance its interests.
That Asian power is stoking nationalist fervor and repressing dissent at home. And the US is attempting to use economic leverage to change its behavior while increasing military deployments to shore up alliances and assert its presence.
The decision to put Huawei and its affiliates on an entity list requiring US suppliers to obtain licenses to do business with them is an existential threat to a high-profile Chinese firm that relies on US components. It is also an upward ratcheting in the treatment of China as a “whole-of-society threat.”
The Donald Trump administration has intensified maritime operations to counter China’s territorial encroachments in the South China Sea, blasted Beijing for its exploitative behavior in advancing its Belt and Road Initiative, imposed tariffs to force it to reverse its unfair trade practices, blocked Chinese investments in the US and increased support for Taiwan.
The US decision in the summer of 1941 to freeze Japanese assets and impose an effective embargo on the oil that its economy and military needed to survive was likewise a drastic step. Following Japan’s savage invasion of China in July 1937, its threats to US, British and other foreign interests grew. In October 1937, Roosevelt gave a speech likening the outbreak of war to a sickness that had to be stopped: “When an epidemic of physical disease starts to spread, the community … joins in a quarantine of the patient.”
A fitful US response followed. Reacting to Japan’s bombing of Chinese cities, the State Department counseled aircraft manufacturers in June 1938 not to sell planes to countries that bombed civilian populations -- a so-called “moral embargo.” In July 1939, the US notified Japan that it would abrogate their bilateral treaty of commerce. In 1940, the US restricted the sale of aviation fuel and scrap iron and embargoed machine tools that could help Japan’s war effort.
Yet Roosevelt and Secretary of State Cordell Hull left these restrictions riddled with loopholes. As the historian Jonathan Utley told me, “Hull’s strategy was not to cripple Japan but to keep it economically dependent on the Western powers and deter it from expanding further south.” Japan was still permitted to buy some types of scrap; moreover, US restrictions on aviation gasoline deliberately left it able to buy lower-octane fuel that its planes could use.
As Hull and many US flag officers saw it, the US military wasn’t ready to fight a two-front war. A sudden shutoff of US raw materials might spur a Japanese attack on resource-rich Southeast Asia, something Roosevelt warned his Cabinet about in the fall of 1940. But Roosevelt’s team was divided, with hawks such as Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau and Secretary of War Henry Stimson holding that Japan would fold under pressure.
Those differences played out fatefully in Roosevelt’s decision to freeze Japan’s assets the following summer. Via decrypted Japanese signals, the US learned of Japan’s plans to occupy southern Indochina, a jumping-off point to take over British and Dutch possessions that were rich in oil, rubber and other resources. To deter that, he bolstered the US military presence in the Philippines. The British and Dutch likewise put a lock on Japanese assets.
All this potentially cut off Japan’s access to oil, 75 percent of which was imported from the US. “Potentially,” however, because Roosevelt didn’t want a full cutoff.
Then Dean Acheson, who would later rise to secretary of state, got involved. A hardliner in Morgenthau’s camp, Acheson was an assistant secretary in the State Department and heading up the joint Treasury-State committee that controlled foreign funds. His bosses had rebuffed his earlier efforts to draft a strict embargo.
But after Roosevelt’s announcement, his committee found reason after reason to deny all Japanese requests for licenses, stiff-arming complaints from other departmental divisions about the dangers of doing so. The result was clear: a de facto total embargo on commerce with Japan.
Japan had an oil stockpile of some 18-24 months of normal consumption, and far less if it were to fuel more military expansion. Its foreign minister cabled its embassy in Washington that “our Empire must immediately take steps to break asunder this ever-strengthening chain of encirclement which is being woven under the guidance and with the participation of England and the United States, acting like a cunning dragon seemingly asleep.”
The momentum within Japan’s government for an invasion of Southeast Asia and accompanying attack on Pearl Harbor accelerated apace.
The US insistence on stiff terms for a resumption of normal trade -- resignation from the Tripartite Pact and a military withdrawal from Indochina and China, -- didn’t help. Moreover, most US and Japanese policymakers had a remarkably blinkered view of one another and their respective countries.
In confronting latter-day China, Trump isn’t knowingly playing for such world-shattering stakes. He would likely be content with a big trade win, however loosely defined, to tout on the campaign trail. His administration may have cited Huawei’s connections to the Chinese government security apparatus as a severe national security threat, but in Trump’s transactional mindset, it’s likely just another bargaining chip in his unending quest to burnish his reputation and political fortunes.
Yet in a contest for global power and influence, such disputes can take a dangerous turn. Trump’s nationalist rhetoric, zero-sum thinking and willingness to entertain a ban on all Chinese student visas -- a toxic reminder of earlier limits on Chinese immigration -- empower hardliners on both sides. Xi is calling for a new “Long March.” Moreover, with hardline Trump advisers like John Bolton -- like Acheson, a mustachioed, Yale-educated lawyer with a history of going rogue -- the possibility of fatal policy misadventure is all too real.
In his memoirs, Acheson justified his tough stand on sanctions by saying that “no rational Japanese could believe that an attack on us could result in anything but disaster for his country.” Yet that attack happened just months later. As the US and China struggle to find peaceful co-existence, that history is worth remembering.
By James Gibney
James Gibney writes editorials on international affairs for Bloomberg Opinion. -- Ed.