In the 1930s, Japan thought it was the greatest nation in Asia, having defeated a huge and powerful country in the Russo-Japanese conflict.
Japan had also annexed the Korean peninsula and the resource-rich Manchuria in northern China.
Tokyo had great ambitions of expanding its territories and influence beyond its shores to almost the entire Northeast and Southeast Asia as well as in Australia and Oceania.
After destroying the US Navy fleet in a sneak attack in Pearl Harbor in December 1941, Tokyo attempted to reach Hawaii and other smaller islands in the Pacific.
But the Americans stopped the Japanese in the Battle of Midway, a turning point in naval warfare. Soon, US bombers began bombing Tokyo and other key Japanese cities to cripple its military complex.
However, Japan lasted until the third quarter of 1945 when the US dropped two nuclear bombs, incinerating Nagasaki and Hiroshima. It forced Japan to surrender.
Almost 80 years later, the United States and Japan have become the closest military allies in the region.
Although Japan was not allowed under its Constitution to possess offensive weapons, it has one of the most advanced military forces in the region.
It has started to rearm itself but not to threaten other countries in the region but to defend itself as it faces serious threats from three sides – the Russians in the north, the North Koreans and the Chinese.
It felt that the US security umbrella was not enough. It has to rely on its own self-defense forces to ward off threats from its neighbors.
Kunihiko Miyake, a former career diplomat and head of a Tokyo-based private security think tank, said the three countries – China, North Korea and Russia – must learn from the mistakes the Japanese committed in the first half of the 20th century.
It was arrogance that led Japan to create a “Greater Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere,” invading countries in Asia, from Korea and China down to Malaya and Indonesia, and westward to Burma. It reached so many small Pacific islands, including Papua New Guinea.
Two decisive sea battles cut Japanese ambitions – the Battle of Midway in June 1942 and a month earlier in the Battle of Coral Sea. The two battles firmly established US air and sea superiority, leading to the October 1944 landing in Leyte as the Japanese lost their possessions one after the other like falling dominoes.
Japan was shamed and brought down to its knees. But it learned from its mistakes. It would never again attempt to annex any other sovereign country in Asia.
Fast forward to the 2020s. China, according to Miyake, is behaving like the Japanese in the 1930s.
But many in China believed it was only trying to recover its lost glory, when Chinese emperors ruled vast territories throughout Asia from the shorelines in the east to the central Asian republics to the west, and Tibet to the south and parts of Mongolia and Russia in the north.
From the first half of the 19th century, China was humiliated as European powers carved out its coastal territories, like Hong Kong, Macau, and parts of Shanghai.
Michael Pillsbury, an American national security expert, has theorized that China has ambitions to dominate the world and surpass the US military and economy by 2049, or 100 years after the Chinese Communist Party rose to power.
It does not only want to unite all Han Chinese from Xinjiang in the west, Tibet in the south, and Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan in the east. Only Taiwan remained outside its control.
As part of its ambition to control the sealanes in Asia, China has started bullying smaller littoral states and has built seven artificial islands in the Spratlys to push out the Americans and their allies away from the strategic South China Sea, where about $3 trillion worth of seaborne goods pass every year.
It has naval bases in Cambodia, Pakistan, and North Africa, and its fishing fleet has reached South America, the South Pacific, and even eastern Africa.
China has been behaving like the Japanese a century ago but its arrogance has brought more danger to the world.
In the 1930s, the nuclear option was out of the question. It was still being developed and Japan tasted the destruction wrought by two atomic bombs in its two cities.
Like China, Russia has similar ambitions to recapture the old glory of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republic (USSR), which disintegrated in the 1990s.
Both Russia and China have absolute rulers who could make mistakes, not just mere miscalculations but catastrophic blunders similar to Nazi Germany’s Adolf Hitler in the 20th century.
Hitler was a dictator. Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping are in the same mold, said Miyake. They have no regard for smaller countries as long as they satisfy their ambitions.
They have become arrogant, like the Japanese military leaders in the 1930s.
History repeats itself. Hopefully, the arrogant leaders will be humiliated again.