Embattled Superpowers

On the eve of the Second World War, the noted journalist John Gunther could still maintain that: “Great Britain, as everyone knows, is the greatest Asiatic power.”[1] The British Empire in Asia controlled a vast territory and large population, sweeping in a great arc from New Zealand and Australia in the South Pacific, to Southeast Asia and South China, and on to India and the Middle East. Britain stood as a superpower with economic interests and security commitments stretching around the globe, much as the United States stands today.

That position of leadership, however, was endangered. The emergence of major new industrial great powers was transforming the international landscape. These challengers, as they converted their growing economic strength into military power, confronted Britain’s leaders with uncomfortable strategic choices. In Asia, one of those rising challengers, imperial Japan, posed a dangerous threat to Britain’s standing as a world power after it embarked on a policy of expansion.

We know the outcome of Japan’s challenge: war and the catastrophic breakdown of Britain’s standing in Asia. The collapse of British power was in part brought about by dynamic changes in technology and the lethality of modern weaponry, particularly the advent of naval aviation, which shifted the naval balance in Japan’s favor. On the eve of war, Britain sought to deter Japan by forming a naval force in the Pacific, known to history as Force Z, consisting of the battleship Prince of Wales and battle cruiser Repulse. Even as Force Z steamed eastward, the Admiralty could spare none of its aircraft carriers, to protect it from air attack.  Nor did the Royal Air Force have enough modern aircraft based in the Far East to offer adequate protection for Force Z. Britain’s inability to control the skies meant the Royal Navy could not command the seas, and this permitted the Japanese to land ground forces in Malaya and seize Singapore, the strategic pivot of British defenses in Asia. Not since Yorktown had Britain suffered such a crushing setback. The world’s leading naval power had been bested by a challenger that exploited innovations in technology and doctrine to gain a marked qualitative edge in fighting power.

As far back as the 1920s, British decision makers and naval planners had foreseen the dangers posed by an expansionist Japan to Britain’s strategic position in Asia. British analysts and commentators took note of Japan’s industrial development, with exports employing a growing number of workers. Since the home islands were poor in natural resources, Japan’s industrial growth generated an increasing demand for imports of raw materials. British naval planners feared that this increased demand would, in turn, lead Japan to seek direct control over sources of supply by expansion in Asia.[2] The British Admiralty maintained that “the need of outlets for the population and for increased commerce and markets, especially new sources of self-supply, will probably be among the most compelling reasons for Japan to push a policy of penetration, expansion and aggression.”[3]

One astute British naval officer observed a struggle between…

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