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A Brief History of the INDOPACIFIC Region: Part 4

Updated: Jan 10, 2022

December 21, 2021 | INDOPACOM


One of the biggest impacts in shaping the INDOPACIFIC region was World War II. While the war began in 1939 and did not end until 1945, the War in the Pacific took place from 1938-1941.

The first major developments in the INDOPACIFC start with the Japanese invasion of northeast China in 1931. While Chinese resistance was not very effective, it led to infighting amongst the Nationalist

government, headed by Chiang Kai-shek, and Chinese Communists, led by Mao Zedong. In November 1937, Japanese forces took Shanghai followed shortly after by the Chinese capital, Nanking. Occupation continued with Canton and several other coastal cities in 1938. However, the Japanese needed large numbers of troops, some 750,000 men, to hold the vast territories across China.

When the war broke out in Europe, Japan expanded its look to colonies in Southeast Asia and the Pacific. The Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia), French Indochina, and British Malaya contained essential materials tin, rubber, petroleum, which were essential to Japan’s economy in becoming a self-sufficient and dominant powerhouse in the Pacific. Germany and Italy recognized the significance of their position, resulting in the Tripartite, or Axis Pact of September 1940. In it, the three nations pled to come to one another’s aid in the event of an attack by a power not already engaged in war.

In response to the continued Japanese takeover in the Pacific, the United States froze Japanese assets under U.S. control and embargoed oil to Japan. Japan tried to negotiate for oil with Dutch Indonesia but was not successful. The U.S. insisted that Japan renounce the Tripartite Pact, with Japanese troops from China and from Southeast Asia, and open trade in China. In November 1941, he U.S. Secretary of State further demanded that Japan evacuate China and Indochina and to recognize the Nationalist government of China. This led Japan to believe that war with the U.S. and Great Britain was going to be inevitable.

The Japanese military strategy was to launch quick and coordinated attacks from their existing bases in the Pacific to quickly overwhelm British, French, American, and Dutch smaller and less experienced forces. If successful, Japan would secure their necessary resources, establish a strong perimeter, and force American and British into negotiations. In December 1941, Japan decided on a two-fold operation: one set of forces to take a surprise attack on the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor in the Hawaiian Islands and the one to converge on the Dutch East Indies, including Wake Island, Guam, the Gilbert Island, Burma, and Hong Kong.

On December 7, 1941, 360 Japanese aircraft launched in two waves making their way to the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor. At the time, Pearl Harbor housed 70 ships, 24 auxiliaries, and close to 300 planes. Eight battleships were hit, more than 180 aircraft were destroyed or damaged, more than 2,330 troops were killed, and over 1,140 wounded in a surprise attack. On December 8th, Japan’s second operation destroyed more than 50% of the U.S. Army’s Far East aircraft in the Philippines.

The attack on Pearl Harbor united the America public and pushed the United States to declare war on Japan on December 8, 1941.

Next Up: The Aftermath of the Attacks on Pearl Harbor



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