Rode to war

Is history repeating itself? Glyn Ford on a compelling conflict in East Asia

Those who wilfully disobey history are twice damned, yet they take the rest of us to hell with them. Washington, under Biden, is walking in Roosevelt’s missteps that predetermined the Pacific War. This time it’s Beijing, not Tokyo, being offered Hobson’s choice.

Received wisdom has Tokyo launching a dastardly surprise attack against the US with the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941. It was a heinous crime. Yet that misses the ‘why?’. Japan, a late emerging industrial nation, had fought its wars with China and Russia and annexed Korea in the wake of two victories as a signal of postponed imperial ambition. They were not the only latecomers to the game. The US was running alongside. Washington, in the same decades, had been complicit in the coup toppling the Hawaiian monarchy and the country’s appropriation, and the US had fought Spain for the Philippines and Cuba. Tokyo was suspicious of US Pacific expansionism as, like Oliver Twist, they wanted more. Japan’s military – unrestrained by its hapless and helpless civilian government – launched an increasingly brutal foray into Manchuria that was turned into war.

It wasn’t the brutal slaughter that primarily occupied Washington’s political leadership; rather, it was Tokyo’s propagation of the idea of a self-sufficient block of Asian states, led by Japan, independent of the West. This was to be formalised in August 1940 as the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. Washington led the West’s response with serial sanctions. These rolling embargoes started in 1938 with airplanes and engines, iron, scrap metal and aviation gasoline. The Panama Canal was closed to Japanese shipping. In July 1941, after Japan invaded southern Vietnam to cut the routes of supplies to China, Washington immediately froze Japanese financial assets and then sanctioned all oil supplies. Britain and the Netherlands followed suit, shadowing the US. 

For Japan’s military leaders, this was closing the final link of encirclement. Tokyo had only two years oil supply stockpiled, and the clock was ticking. War was inevitable after Washington had sanctioned Tokyo into a corner. The only question was when. Japan’s bellicose admirals, leading what was effectively a military government, could cravenly surrender or drive into Indonesia for oil with a preventive flank attack on the US to slow retribution. Anyone at all surprised by the choice the military made needed to get out more.

Now Washington is reprising the same game plan. A short century on, the sinews of war are very different. Oil is still important, but the world’s two competing superpowers are both well supplied, as they are with metals. Today’s ‘oil’ is the microchip. Since the invention in the US of the transistor in 1947, they are in everything and everywhere in prodigious quantities. They are in ovens, fridges, vacuums, cars and car keys as well as phones and laptops. The main chip in the Apple iPhone 12 contains just shy of 12 billion transistors – two for every person on the planet. A million a penny. The crunch is not in these common-or-garden chips, but the high-end chips produced for cutting-edge military technologies: those for the drone swarms, unmanned fighting vehicles, fire-and-forget missiles, “loitering munition systems” and facial recognition assassination drones. Here lies toxic chance.

Early chip production was in the US, but unionised male labour was seen by the companies as too expensive. They tried women, but eventually settled on East Asia with no unions and wage rates 10% of the US. The ultimate result, after multiple shakeouts, is that there is now a single manufacturer of the super-high-end chips, and two toolmakers producing the machines to make them. The producer is the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC), while the major toolmaker is the Dutch company ASML, the only company outside of Japan making the required photolithography machines. China spends more money on importing microchips ($260 billion in 2017) than importing oil. In October 2022, Biden announced a ban on microchip exports to China, either by US companies or those using US semiconductor technology like TSMC. Beijing would have to make its own. In January, the US, Netherlands and Japan announced a trilateral deal prohibiting the sale to China of advanced lithography machines. Will Dyson’s iconic cartoon, published in the Daily Herald in 1919 after the conclusion of the Versailles Treaty, titled ‘Peace and Future Cannon Fodder’, with the strapline “Curious, I seem to hear a child weeping”, speaks for where the world is again today.


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