1839, 1937 and 1941—These are three dates for blustering, bullying British Prime Minister Boris Johnson to learn before he sends Britain’s two new aircraft carriers to the South China Sea where the Chinese if they wanted to could sink them within minutes.
Date Number One: In 1839, Britain, then the mightiest sea power and empire the world had ever seen, went to war in the name of international free trade to smash China’s desperate efforts at border security.
The Chinese wanted to stop the flood of opium into their country grown in British India that was destroying their society, the oldest and most populous civilization in the world. Their efforts at border security and their war on drugs never had a chance. The British smashed them.
A tidal wave of economic depression, despair and opioid crises then swept China over the next decade: It led to the rise of the Taiping, a wild militaristic pseudo-Christian sect that was as murderous and merciless as Nazism or Communism.
By the time the Taiping Rebellion was over in 1865, 40 million to 50 million Chinese had died—at least eight times the death toll of the US Civil War at the same time.
Date Number Two for Boris Johnson to learn before he lectures China yet again about freedom of navigation in the South China Sea is 1937: The year that World War II truly began.
In July 1937, the Imperial Japanese Army landed at the mouth of the Yangtze River and drove 180 miles up it in three months to China’s modern capital city Nanjing. Along the way they killed—usually with bayonets and swords to conserve ammunition—as many as three quarters of a million Chinese civilians.
Once the Imperial Army reached Nanjing, things got even worse. The torture, rape, slaughter, beheading and dismembering of Chinese women ranging in age from younger than five to over 90 was so horrifying, so monstrous that even the deputy head of the Nazi Party in the city German engineer John Rabe was appalled.
Acting on his own initiative and with inconceivable bravery he set up an international humanitarian zone. Armed with nothing but bluff, he saved an estimated three hundred thousand lives and is revered by the Chinese people to this day.
Therefore twice in one century, inconceivable, genocidal-scale suffering and horror came upon the Chinese people as a direct result of invasions launched by dominant sea and air powers in the South China Sea. No wonder China’s leaders remain obsessed with the region today.
Boris Johnson may choose to ignore those horrific lessons of history—untaught to this day in schools and universities across both the United States and the United Kingdom.
But there is a third date that should give him pause: 1941.
In the late fall or autumn of that year, Winston Churchill, Britain’s legendary war premier, but also a highly alcoholic, blustering military bungler with a ludicrous 19th century conception of war, sent two capital ships, the battleship Prince of Wales on which he himself had sailed and the battlecruiser Repulse to the other side of the world, believing they would terrify Japan into leaving Britain’s Eastern Empire alone.
Three days after the Japanese air attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese Navy Air Force bombers and torpedo planes sank both warships in only 30 minutes of operations.
Today, the new British aircraft carriers Queen Elizabeth and Prince of Wales are as vulnerable as obsolescent and as easy to sink by submarines and missiles as the Prince of Wales and the Repulse were by air attacks nearly 70 years ago.
Boris Johnson reveres Churchill and openly seeks to emulate his alcoholic intake. He seeks to strut the world stage and affects a global role for his tiny offshore island even more impossible to sustain now than it was in Churchill’s time, when it took both the Soviet Union and the United States to rescue the British from Nazi Germany.
The aircraft carrier Queen Elizabeth—Britain’s proud new pride and joy—is a joke. The Brits cannot even supply aircraft to fly on it and have to be bailed out with trouble-plagued F-35s from the US. But it is a prime symptom of the childish sleepwalking that is bringing a vulnerable, overcrowded island nation of 65 million people to total destruction.
This article originally appeared in Strategic Culture Foundation on-line journal.
During his 24 years as a senior foreign correspondent for The Washington Times and United Press International, Martin Sieff reported from more than 70 nations and covered 12 wars. He has specialized in US and global economic issues.