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The Ultimate Battleship Battle: Japan's Yamato vs. America's Iowa

The Buzz

It would have been the ultimate duel of dreadnoughts. In one corner, Japan’s Yamato, weighing in at 65,000 tons, the biggest battleship in history. In the other corner, Iowa, at 45,000 tons the pride of America's World War II battleship fleet. In reality, the two ships never met in battle. But what if they had, in a cataclysmic clash of seagoing titans?

One researcher can offer an answer, or at least a very educated guess. Jon Parshall, historian and author of the superb Shattered Sword: The Untold Story of the Battle of Midway has pitted the top battleships of various nations against each other at Combinedfleet.com, the go-to site for information on the Imperial Japanese Navy.

Among the battleships he compares are Yamato and Iowa, based on five criteria: guns, armor, underwater protection, fire control and “tactical factors” such as speed and damage control.

It would have been the ultimate duel of dreadnoughts. In one corner, Japan’s Yamato, weighing in at 65,000 tons, the biggest battleship in history. In the other corner, Iowa, at 45,000 tons the pride of America's World War II battleship fleet. In reality, the two ships never met in battle. But what if they had, in a cataclysmic clash of seagoing titans?

(Recommended: Is it Time to Bring Back the Battleships?)

One researcher can offer an answer, or at least a very educated guess. Jon Parshall, historian and author of the superb Shattered Sword: The Untold Story of the Battle of Midway has pitted the top battleships of various nations against each other at Combinedfleet.com, the go-to site for information on the Imperial Japanese Navy.

Among the battleships he compares are Yamato and Iowa, based on five criteria: guns, armor, underwater protection, fire control and “tactical factors” such as speed and damage control.

Guns:

Yamato’s 18.1-inch guns were the largest ever mounted on a warship. Since they couldn't match American quantity, it was Japanese navy doctrine for each warship to be more powerful than its individual U.S. counterpart. Yamato’s nine 18-inchers could throw a 3,200-pound shell out to 26 miles, while Iowa’s nine 16-inch guns could propel a 2,700-pound shell 24 miles.

Even though Japanese shells were less effective than American ones, the range advantage should belong to Yamato. Yet the real issue was even hitting the target in the first place. Given World War II fire control systems, the chance of hitting a battleship moving at 30 miles per hour from a distance of 25 miles is very small.

For his analysis, Parshall assumes that both battleship captains would close the range to less than 23 miles. At that distance, both the Yamato’s and Iowa’s guns could penetrate each other’s armor. “That’s why I say there’s a lot of luck involved here,” Parshall explained. “Iowa’s fire control is better. But if Yamato gets lucky and gets in the first hit or two, and they’re doozies, it could very easily be game over for Iowa.”

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Advantage: neither ship.

Armor:

Yamato seemingly had the edge here, with 16 inches of belt armor to Iowa’s 12 inches. The Japanese vessel had 9 inches of deck armor to Iowa’s 6, and an impressive 26 inches of armor on the faces of her main gun turrets, versus just 20 inches of turret armor for Iowa.

“Yamato was simply built to stand up to and utterly outclass any conceivable American or British opponent by sheer weight of gunfire and elephant-like armor,” Parshall writes. “As such, hers is a sort of ‘brute force’ approach to protection. Her armor layout isn’t the most efficient, but she has a lot of armor, so it doesn’t really matter.”

While Yamato was thickly armored everywhere, Iowa’s armor was thicker over her more vital areas. However, as Parshall points out, only America could afford to build battleships with hulls and interiors constructed entirely out of tough but light Special Treatment Steel, which meant that U.S. battleships could be smaller and lighter for an equivalent amount of protection.

(Recommended: The 5 Biggest Battleship Battles of All Time)

Nonetheless, Parshall gives a slight edge to Yamato here; if both ships suffered damage to their fire control systems and had to close the range, the invulnerability of Yamato’s turrets to Iowa’s shells could prove important.

Advantage: Yamato.

Underwater Protection:

Why is a battleships’s underwater armor important? Battlewagons hurled big cannon shells at each other, not torpedoes, which is why battleships tended to be more heavily armored above the waterline.

But tell that to the German warship Bismarck, which was ultimately hunted down and sunk after a 14-inch shell from the British Prince of Wales landed short, dove through the water and penetrated the German battleship below her more lightly armored waterline.

As part of its quest for qualitative superiority, Japan trained its battleship crews in long-range shots to achieve such devastating underwater hits. “The chances of any given shell giving us a good underwater effect is pretty low,” Parshall noted. “But if you throw enough shells up in the air, strange things can happen. And after a while, odds are, they probably will.”

Of the seven battleships Parshall analyzed, Yamato and Iowa had the best underwater armor. However, Yamato had poor seams between her upper and lower armor belts, which allowed water to enter when she was torpedoed by U.S. aircraft off Okinawa.

Advantage: Iowa.

Fire Control:

Marksmanship is a key consideration when trying to hit a moving target from 25 miles away, even one that is almost three football fields long. Here was perhaps the Iowa’s biggest advantage. Japanese fire control radar was poor, while American fire control radar was the best in the world.

“In a 1945 test, an American battleship (the North Carolina) was able to maintain a constant [fire control] solution even when performing back to back high-speed 450-degree turns, followed by back-to-back 100-degree turns,” Parshall writes.

“This was a much better performance than other contemporary systems,” he continues, “and gave U.S. battleships a major tactical advantage, in that they could both shoot and maneuver, whereas their opponents could only do one or the other.”

However, the Japanese had superb optical rangefinders and night binoculars, which enabled them to surprise and decimate the U.S. Navy in night battles off Guadalcanal. But optics were susceptible to bad weather and smoke.

“All optics do a very good job at determining bearing to the target, but not so good at determining range,” Parshall says. “World War II radar, on the flip, could give you a very good range number, but unless you had a modern set, getting a decent bearing was a real bear. So, the combination of decent optics plus world-class radar is way better than world-class optics plus crappy radar.”

Advantage: Iowa.

Tactical Factors:

Here Parshall lumps together several factors, such as speed and damage control. Iowa could sail at 33 knots to Yamato’s 27, which would confer some advantage in opening or closing range. Yamato had a displacement one-third larger than Iowa, which should confer a larger ability to absorb damage.

But when it comes to damage control, America was far ahead of Japan and other nations.

Advantage: Iowa.

And the Winner Is:

So which battleship would win? Based strictly on raw numbers, I would give the edge to Iowa based on her superior fire control. But it would only take a lucky hit or two to knock out a radar, and with those powerful 18.1-inch guns, a hit from Yamato’s main battery would hurt Iowa.

While both ships enjoyed certain advantages over each other, those advantages are so slender that luck would probably play as decisive role as firepower and armor.

Of course, this scenario is hypothetical, the province of armchair admirals and war gamers. Yamato and Iowa wouldn’t have stood turret-to-turret in an arena like a pair of heavyweight boxers. They would have been surrounded by cruisers, destroyers and subs.

In fact, the only time battleships slugged it out, without all the small fry in the way, was when Bismarck and the German cruiser Prinz Eugen confronted the British battleship Prince of Wales and the battlecruiser Hood in the Battle of the Denmark Strait.

In the end, a Yamato versus Iowa duel might have been a fascinating but futile curiosity. In 1945 the era of the battlewagon was already ending, sinking beneath the weight of swarms of aircraft. In fact, Yamato was sunk during its suicide run to Okinawa on April 7, 1945, overwhelmed by waves of U.S. carrier-based torpedo bombers.

Iowa enjoyed a career through World War II, Korea and was even reactivated during the 1980s. She bombarded shore targets aplenty, but never had the chance to engage an enemy battleship.

Advantage: Iowa.

This piece first appeared in War Is Boring here

TopicsSecurity RegionsAsia

The Lethal A-10 Warthog: A Nuclear Bomber?

The Buzz

Despite what the Pentagon and senior Air Force leaders might say, the A-10 Warthog is far from a “single-purpose airplane.” But dropping nuclear bombs might be one of the things the low- and slow-flying attackers actually can’t do.

But the Air Force once briefly considered the idea.

In December 1975, Secretary of Defense Bill Clements wanted to know how much it would cost to modify F-15 and F-16 fighter jets so they could carry atomic weapons. Two months later, the Air Force sent back data on what it would take to upgrade those two types of aircraft—or the A-10—with nukes.

“For your information, we have also provided similar cost data on the A-10 aircraft,” states an unclassified memo War Is Boring obtained from the Air Force Historical Research Agency. “The estimated cost to make 275 A-10s nuclear-capable is $15.9 million.”

The total amount—equivalent to more than $65 million today—would cover developing and testing the required equipment, and installing it on the Warthog fleet.

The flying branch’s calculations included systems needed to support B-43, B-57 and B-61 bombs.

At the time, these three bombs were the standard nuclear weapons for aircraft in the U.S. military. If a shooting war broke out in Europe, America’s NATO allies would have gotten access to these weapons, too. Newer versions of the B-61 remain in service today.

Obviously, the Air Force never ended up arming the A-10s with nukes.

But Clement’s desire for more nuclear-armed aircraft is hardly surprising. During the Cold War, the Pentagon expected to use nuclear bombs, artillery shells and missiles to fend off a Soviet invasion of Europe.

“As new aircraft are coming online in the 1970s, their use as nuclear delivery aircraft would have been discussed,” Air Force historian Brian Laslie says. “Tactical delivery of nuclear weapons was surely to be in planning documents for a European theater conflict.”

For many in Washington, the devastating power of atomic arms was the only way to deter the Kremlin. On paper at least, Moscow and her Warsaw Pact allies had a terrifying advantage in sheer numbers of tanks and other armored vehicles.

“Since 1968 the USSR has built over 65,000 armored vehicles for maneuver—nearly four times as many tanks as the United States, some three times as many armored infantry carriers,” warned a recently declassified Central Intelligence Agency article published in 1980.

But why the Air Force would offer up a nuclear-armed A-10 as a potential solution isn’t entirely clear.

While the Warthogs boast an impressive and unequaled array of ground attack capabilities, the straight-winged strike planes are poorly suited at best—and a death trap at worst—for a nuclear bombing run.

“This is a ‘could versus should’ question,” says a senior Air Force weapons and tactics planner, who spoke to War Is Boring on the condition of anonymity. “Certainly, the A-10 could have been modified for nuke delivery.”

“However, the more to the point question is whether or not it should have,” adds the official, who is also a former Warthog pilot. “In my opinion, I can see practically no reason to do so.”

The problem is that while the aircraft certainly could have delivered the bombs to their intended targets, the pilots probably couldn’t make it back alive. The Warthog’s slow speed, so valuable when supporting troops on the ground, could have easily turned the entire affair into a suicide mission.

While the exact specifics are classified, a B-61 bomb can likely create a fireball almost a mile wide, according to data from nuclear historian Alex Wellerstein’s Nukemap Website.

The approximate radius of the air blast from the weapon going off—where “most residential buildings collapse, injuries are universal [and] fatalities are widespread”—would extend more than three miles from ground zero, Wellerstein’s site adds.

Fast-moving fighter jets would have trouble escaping the aftermath of these massive explosions. On a nuclear mission, the Air Force expected its fighter pilots to fly toward their targets at altitudes greater than 30,000 feet before lobbing bombs at the enemy.

With the bombs flying in an upward arc onto the target, the method would hopefully give the aircraft enough time to fly clear of the blast. But it’d still be a close call. The slower A-10s probably wouldn’t make it.

“The fact that F-15E Strike Eagles and other fighters would have had difficulty egressing [the area] after nuclear delivery indicates that any A-10 using nuclear weapons would not have survived,” Laslie says. “I just don’t think any nuclear delivery profile would have been sufficient for an A-10.”

The A-10 pilots would have had to hope for the best. But weapons fitted with a timed fuze might have bought just enough time for the Warthogs to get away from the impact site.

“Here’s one possibility … a last-ditch mission profile intended to blunt a Warsaw Pact breakthrough along the German border,” the Air Force officer suggests as one reason for sending the Warthogs on a nuclear mission.

Needless to say, the Air Force didn’t recommend strapping atomic weapons to the A-10s. Nor is there any record that the Air Force considered the idea ever again.

“I do not think I ever heard this capability discussed,” the former A-10 pilot says. “My guess is that we would have had a good laugh at the idea had it ever come up.”

The consensus appears to be that lobbing nuclear bombs is one thing the venerable Warthogs can’t—and shouldn’t—do.

This piece first appeared in War Is Boring here

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Russia and China: Planning to Build Aircraft Carriers Together?

The Buzz

Could Beijing and Moscow’s budding friendship be moving towards the joint development of some of the most sophisticated types of naval vessels on the planet?

A recent report may indicate that China and Russia might be considering a big leap in military cooperation: the possibility of jointly developing an aircraft carrier.

Such an idea was raised in a recent piece in the Wall Street Journal near the very end of an article detailing Moscow’s struggles to develop advanced military hardware thanks to economic challenges.

The piece states specifically, “Russia has touted what it calls a strategic alliance with China, which may develop into plans to build a joint aircraft carrier.”

The articles continues, explaining that:

“A defense industry official, however, said China is raising its demands, and wants a controlling stake in the project.

‘We both tout the benefits of our friendship,’ the official said. ‘But the truth is, the Chinese are playing hardball.’”

With Russia now on the cusp of finally selling China the advanced Su-35 fighter, could both sides now be contemplating co-development of what some see as the ultimate weapon on the high-seas?

Reasons For and Against:

There are a number of reasons why Moscow and Beijing may, or may not, go for such a deal: 

Russia:

The reasons why Moscow would avoid such a partnership are straightforward.

First, Russia might simply not have the money for such a financially draining endeavor. Modern aircraft carriers cost billions of dollars to design, test and manufacture. Such a possibility seems silly when one considers that Moscow is struggling to modernize its military with other expensive pieces of hardware in the face of economic sanctions and sagging oil prices.

Conversely, Russia might be tempted into such a partnership if China was willing to help finance and develop Moscow’s efforts to create a new supercarrier. Such a carrier, widely reported in the press, would easily cost billions of dollars to create and could drain Russia’s military budget. But if Beijing was willing to pony up much of the costs, with Moscow willing to share the technology, it could prove to be quite tempting.

However, would Russia really want to give even more advanced military technology to China that could someday be used against them if relations with Beijing were to sour?

China:

Beijing could be swayed to work with Russia on a carrier project for a number of different reasons.

Aircraft Carrier development for China has been a top priority for several decades. As I noted back in 2011:

“Back in 1985, China purchased the World War II era Australian carrier HMAS Melbourne for a disposal fee, only to halt its break up for several years to study its design. The Chinese also purchased three Soviet era carriers in the 1990’s from Russia and the Ukraine: the Kiev, Minsk and Varyag. The Kiev and Minsk were indeed eventually turned into amusement parks. However, the Chinese studied both carriers carefully in their ongoing efforts to develop carrier technology. While both carriers possessed nowhere near the capabilities of modern US nuclear carriers, any secrets or technology the Chinese could learn on the cheap would have proved useful for later vessels. Spending millions initially instead of billions later so they could learn from others’ successes and failures would only have benefitted Chinese military planners and speeded up their efforts.”

But Beijing’s efforts did not stop there:

“...The Varyag, the most famous of their ‘casino’ acquisitions, was purchased [from Ukraine] in March 1998 for $20 million dollars. The Chinese company that purchased the vessel had strong ties to the Chinese military, and the then Varyag would become trapped in limbo for over 15 months. Turkish officials wouldn’t allow the carrier to move through the Dardanelles, citing a long-standing rule of not allowing carriers passage through the straits.  It has been rumoured that China then offered Turkey more than $360 million dollars in a nicely crafted ‘tourism and economic aid package’ to allow the passage of the presumed floating casino."

But the Varyag never was kitted out with slot machines or craps tables [to turn the carrier into a floating casino,as was the supposed reason for the sale]. Instead, the Soviet era carrier was completely stripped down and recreated into a more modern aircraft carrier.”

To this day, China has only the rebuilt former Varyag, now rechristened Liaoning, to show despite all its years of effort. Even if China were to build multiple carriers, with Russia or on its own, one must remember that a carrier is not a stand-alone weapons platform. One must protect the carrier with assets that can ward off submarines, missiles and other forms of military power that could sink the floating airfield—costing additional billions more. At a time when the Chinese economy is starting to sour, would Beijing want to throw billions of dollars into such a project?

Is the Age of the Carrier Over?

There could be an even more powerful reason that a Sino-Russo carrier development project never gets off the ground: the march of technology.

As we have seen from China itself, many nations have developed weaponry specifically targeting aircraft carriers. While various types of missile platforms have been around for decades that have challenged the carrier’s dominance, their proliferation to many countries around the world—and in larger numbers—could certainly be an argument for Beijing and Moscow to spend their money elsewhere.

As Jerry Hendrix noted in a report for the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) back in 2013 when talking about China’s DF-21D, or "carrier-killer" and the threat it posed to U.S. carriers:

“Using a maneuverable reentry vehicle (MaRV) placed on a CSS-5 missile, China’s Second Artillery Division states that its doctrine will be to saturate a target with multiple warheads and multiple axis attacks…”

Hendrix then notes the frightening cost advantage:

“While the United States does not know the cost of this weapons system, some analysts have estimated its procurement costs at $5 million to $11 million. Assuming the conservative, high-end estimate of $11 million per missile gives an exchange ratio of $11 million to $13.5 billion, which means that China could build 1,227 DF-21Ds for every carrier the United States builds going forward.”

So the question seems quite simple: Why would China place billions of dollars into carriers with Russia or even on its own when it is working to undermine the military utility of such a weapons platform in the first place?

Closing Thoughts:

Call me skeptical, but I don’t think we are going to see Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin standing dockside glouting over a jointly developed aircraft carrier anytime soon. While both nations have many areas in which to strengthen cooperation, carriers aren’t likely to be one of them.

Harry J. Kazianis serves as Executive Editor of The National Interest and a Senior Fellow for Defense Policy at the Center for the National Interest. He is the co-author and editor of the recent Center for the National Interest report: Tackling Asia’s Greatest Challenges - A U.S. Japan-Vietnam Trilateral Report. You can follow him on Twitter: @grecianformula and on Linkedin.

TopicsSecurity RegionsAsia

Is China Getting Ready to Develop the World's Fastest Plane?

The Buzz

China’s military over the last twenty years has worked at breakneck speed to develop weapons platforms that have created a certain amount of concern in capitals all over Asia and in Washington. And if reports prove correct, Beijing might be able to add one more military marvel to its list of accomplishments—the world’s fastest plane.

According to various reports, China is planning to develop a domestically crafted turbofan ramjet engine. Such an engine—at least in theory—could be the foundation for a jet faster than the legendary U.S. SR-71 spyplane, the fastest air-breathing manned aircraft, retired in the late 1990s.

The WantChinaTimes reports that:

“An Aug. 25 report in Beijing-based newspaper China Aviation News praised the engine division of Xi'an-based aeronautic and aerospace firm AVIC Qingan Group for its achievements in several projects, raising speculation that China may be preparing to develop an aircraft with a higher speed than the US Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird strategic reconnaissance aircraft, according to Shanghai-based news web portal New Outlook.

The report mentions a planned project which would see the development of China's first domestically-made turbofan-ramjet combined cycle engine, designed for an unnamed aircraft. The description of this engine suggests something resembling the Pratt & Whitney J58 variable cycle engine used by the SR-71 Blackbird, which is also often described as a turbofan-ramjet engine, due to its unique bleed from the compressor to the afterburner which allows for increased thrust at high speeds.”

Indeed, the report goes on to note:

“A source close to the PLA Air Force was cited by New Outlook as stating that this is part of a project to develop a manned supersonic aircraft, currently in the preparation stages at a domestic research institute. The aircraft is expected to have a top speed faster than the Blackbird on completion, according to the source, although the project is yet to be formally launched.”

While China is likely years away from developing its own SR-71 style spyplane, and other types of intelligence gathering (think modern satellites, drones, etc.) have largely removed the need for such an aircraft, the “blackbird” still holds a special place in many aviators’ hearts around the globe—especially those who flew it. And in fact, America might be developing its successor.

“The SR-71 served six presidents, protecting America for a quarter of a century. Unbeknownst to most of the country, the plane flew over North Vietnam, Red China, North Korea, the Middle East, South Africa, Cuba, Nicaragua, Iran, Libya, and the Falkland Islands,” explained Brian Shaul, a former SR-71 pilot in a recent article for Gizmodo.

“On a weekly basis, the SR-71 kept watch over every Soviet nuclear submarine and mobile missile site, and all of their troop movements. It was a key factor in winning the Cold War.”  notes Shaul.

“I am proud to say I flew about 500 hours in this aircraft. I knew her well. She gave way to no plane, proudly dragging her sonic boom through enemy backyards with great impunity. She defeated every missile, outran every MiG, and always brought us home. In the first 100 years of manned flight, no aircraft was more remarkable.”

For China, Multiple Motives:

While America’s SR-71 is long since retired—in fact, I have been able to see the mighty Cold War plane up close right outside of Washington—the development of such a capability for China might serve a number of functions.

For starters, any developments in the domestic production of more-sophisticated and reliable jet engines would be a boon for Beijing. At the moment, China is highly reliant on Russia for fighter engines, and in fact, reports indicate its J-20 fifth-generation fighter is powered by Moscow’s advanced engines. Being able to develop top-tier engines for for a SR-71-style plane would be a major step up for China’s engine manufacturers.

One must also factor in the prestige of developing a plane that could very well take the speed crown away from America. Imagine the plane being used in all sorts of propaganda-style footage for the People’s Liberation Army or flying over Beijing during military parades in the future—a sure sign of China taking its place among the great powers.

Now if the Chinese economy would just cooperate.

Harry J. Kazianis serves as Executive Editor of The National Interest and a Senior Fellow for Defense Policy at the Center for the National Interest. He is the co-author and editor of the recent Center for the National Interest report:Tackling Asia’s Greatest Challenges - A U.S. Japan-Vietnam Trilateral Report. You can follow him on Twitter: @grecianformula and on Linkedin.

TopicsSecurity RegionsAsia

The Real Threat of Chinese Nationalism

The Buzz

On Monday, China’s Shanghai Composite Index dropped 8.5 percent, the largest percentage fall since the financial crisis hit in 2007. Hours earlier it was reported that Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe, would not attend a ceremony in China on September 3 marking the seventieth anniversary of the end of World War Two. So far, China’s economic slowdown has been seen as separate from the country’s antagonisms with Japan. Both domestic and antiforeign discontent might concern China watchers, and both might be simmering at the moment, but each registers as its own threat, requiring its own policy response. This is wrong. What connects these issues is the worrying role popular nationalism has taken on in China in the era after Mao Zedong and, more recently, after Deng Xiaoping.

All of this comes on the eve of a state visit by Chinese president Xi Jinping to the United States in September. Xi lands in Washington as the leader who has, according to President Obama, “consolidated power faster and more comprehensively than probably anybody since Deng Xiaoping." No force has been more important in Xi’s power grab than nationalism. He has presided over a country that has stoked patriotic fervor as well as antagonized its neighbors and the United States. The most immediate result of stirring up national sentiment has been to strengthen Xi’s power within the seven-member Politburo Standing Committee. With this backstop of popular support, Xi has steadfastly pursued a set of programs, even amid some opposition. For example, his anticorruption purge has continued even after an authority as prominent as former president Jiang Zemin warned against it becoming too ambitious.

Nationalism has worked for Xi. So far, patriotic, mass support has protected him from a strong, public challenge by the military or the party. But nationalism in China has an uncertain and at times combustible relationship with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and its leaders in Beijing. In China, street-level, unchecked nationalism—nationalism en masse—is a precarious threat both to the CCP and to regional and global stability overall.

In 2012, Xi took control of a China unthinkable without Deng Xiaoping. By opening up its economy and jettisoning Mao-era programs, China created an average of 10 percent growth per year over the thirty years beginning with 1980. Millions were brought from subsistence living to a point where median income now approaches a “middle-income trap.” As if to acknowledge this change, Xi reiterated his commitment to Deng’s “socialism with Chinese characteristics” shortly after coming to power.

But this phrase, “socialism with Chinese characteristics,” is by now, of course, “nonsense,” China scholar Roderick MacFarquhar said at the time. Communism no longer connects the nation; it is no longer a unifying ideology. Instead, China now has

"No ideology. No sense of what the country is about. And the only way, and it is a very dangerous way, that they can achieve some kind of unity between party, state and people, is the dangerous route of nationalism."

Over the last two-and-a-half decades, and with the strict tenets of communism shed as a unifying ideology, nationalism has been paired with robust economic growth in China to legitimize the country’s leadership. Both contributed to an “authoritarian resilience,” as China scholar Jessica Chen Weiss describes it. Now, nationalism and economics have begun to decouple as growth has slowed and stocks have tumbled. Comparisons with Deng have turned from complimentary of Xi to concerning for China as a whole. “The country is now going through a crisis of transition, unparalleled since Deng Xiaoping set out to put clear water between China’s future and the Mao era,” writes George Magnus, an associate at Oxford University’s China Centre and senior advisor to UBS, in the Financial Times.

What connects the faltering economy with the animosity between China and Japan is that antiforeign protests are some of the only forms of mass, organized protest that have been permitted to take place in China. As Weiss points out, while anti-Japanese demonstrations were repressed in the 1990s and 2000s, they nonetheless flared up in 1985, 2005, 2010 and 2012. Moreover, she notes, the 1985 anti-Japanese protests were early precursors of the pro-democracy protests of 1986 and 1989, giving participants much needed experience in mass mobilization. Weiss explains what the CCP knows well, that “[e]ven strong authoritarian governments may have difficulty reining in protests that are widely seen as patriotic and legitimate."

History shows that Chinese officials quickly repress demonstrations about domestic issues. This is less the case with antiforeign protests, which not only can have an intrinsic, patriotic legitimacy leaders find difficult to counter, but also, as Weiss argues, can have a value for China’s leaders to signal resolve in diplomacy.

In a statement released for the anniversary of the end of World War II on August 15, Japanese prime minister Abe said that his “heart is rent with the utmost grief” about the damage done by his country. But he also emphasized that “[w]e must not let our children, grandchildren, and even further generations to come, who have nothing to do with that war, be predestined to apologize.” This statement joins a list of recent perceived slights, including a row this summer over the treatment of the war in Japanese textbooks, that irk many Chinese.

Chinese-Japanese tensions have eased somewhat since the worst days of 2012, which Weiss says saw the largest anti-Japanese demonstrations since relations were normalized in 1972. Of the 287 prefecture cities Weiss and a colleague studied in 2012, nearly three-quarters saw street protests. Should Xi tolerate another spate of anti-Japanese protests, he would be using popular sentiment to signal to Japanese officials that China’s avenues for compromise are few. Importantly, this wish to signal resolve in diplomacy is weighed against the threat that such protests will spiral out of control, turning to domestic grievances and turning against Beijing. In this way, any anti-Japanese protests ostensibly about the Second World War are a potential rallying point for discontent about the present. “In current American usage,” the scholar Bernard Lewis noted, “the phrase ‘that’s history’ is commonly used to dismiss something as unimportant, of no relevance to current concerns.” Not so in much of the world, and not so in China now.

China’s leaders, Xi chief among them, can wield nationalism for their own ends. And now, leaders may wish to double down on nationalism as both the economy and the legitimacy the government has gained in the post-Deng era from a strong economy weaken. But nationalism isn’t an easy tool to control. As Weiss points out,

"the past two Chinese governments fell to nationalist movements that accused them of failing to defend the country from foreign encroachments: the Nationalists under Chiang Kai-shek and the Manchu leaders of the Qing dynasty."

Going into this autumn, policy makers should be mindful of what is happening in China’s streets, as well as what Xi does and says before and during his trip to Washington.

John Richard Cookson is assistant managing editor of The National Interest.

Image:Flickr/Creative Commons. 

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