by Arthur Herman
The US strategic position in the Pacific is starting to look a lot like it did 70 years ago — on the eve of Pearl Harbor.
Back in 1941, President Franklin Roosevelt was determined to make an aggressive Asian rival behave — imperial Japan. But he was doing so after a catastrophic reduction in US military strength and readiness.
That rundown began right after World War I. Then as now, the American public was tired of wars and complicated commitments in faraway places, and the military became a prime object of a cost-conscious Congress.
Two decades of cuts shrank the Army from fourth in the world in 1918 to 19th — right behind tiny Holland — and the Navy from 774 vessels in 1918 to 311 in 1933, with 37 battleships slashed to just 11 by 1933.
[Is this statement meant to be a joke?] No one is saying another Pearl Harbor is in the offing. But like Japan in 1941, China in 2011 confronts a US policy swinging from apathy to toughness without the military leverage to back it up.
Beijing’s aggressive bullying of neighbors over sovereign rights in the South China Sea, and its steady military buildup, including its navy, deserves presidential attention. But the new militancy from the White House is jarring.
President Obama reassured Asian heads of state in Hawaii last month, “We’re here to stay” — which is supposed to intimidate China into playing nice. Plus, we’re sending troops to Australia to show a “more broadly distributed military presence” in Asia, as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton terms it. Our Navy will step up operations there, too.
Yet that Navy is even smaller than in 1933, with up to 60 more ships destined for retirement with few replacements in sight. And our troops in Australia will number less than 2,500 — just enough to be provocative, but far too small to do anything effective.
Meanwhile, our troops in South Korea and ships and airbases in Japan are more vulnerable than anyone likes to admit. China’s generals and admirals have spent the last decade building the means for Assassin’s Mace, an all-out Pearl Harbor-style preemptive strike, from anti-ship and anti-satellite missiles to a tsunami of cyber attacks that would leave our forces blind and mute around the globe — and render our military presence in Asia a smoldering ruin.