Lecture 9: conflict between japan and china

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  1. Imperialism and Japanese expansion into Asia

  2. Trade between Japan and China

  3. Japanese control over Chinese resources in Manchuria and Shantung

  4. Differences within Japan over the ‘China problem’.

  5. Chinese nationalism and the Imperialist powers

  6. Japanese foreign policy and the Kwantung army

  7. The Manchurian Incident

  8. The annexation of Manchuko

  9. The outbreak of the second Sino-Japanese war

  10. War and the Chinese and Japanese economies

For those reading the lecture there is a glossary at the end of names and details given in bold in the text


One of the persistent themes to emerge in this first semester’s work is the complication caused by the struggle of Asian nations, principally Japan and China, for regional pre-eminence. At the start of our period, China was the undisputed Asian power, but by the later 19th century that position was challenged successfully by Japan. Throughout the twentieth century, Japan has been the major economic force in East Asia, though its political, military and diplomatic role changed enormously as a result of the Second World War. There are very good reasons for looking at the regional conflict between Japan and China for what it might tell us about the domestic economics and politics, particularly of the aggressor, Japan. We have already seen that Japan expanded into Asia because of endemic fears about the scarcity of domestic raw materials but also used the idea of imperialism (and its ability to provide the Japanese with wealth and security) as a way of mobilising popular support for modernisation. We have also seen that the inability of the Chinese to resist Japanese incursions into Korea and Manchuria helped to destroy the Qing dynasty and convince the Europeans to become involved in the expensive task of maintaining order in China. What I intend to do in this lecture is to give a little more context to Japanese ideas of imperialism, and then to fill out the history of Sino-Japanese conflict in the interwar years. In essence, we are looking at the interactions of domestic and foreign policy in both countries.

Japan’s regional expansion before the First World War had been quite remarkable. Through the Treaties that ended the Sino-Japanese war of 1894-5 and the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-5, Japan became a colonial power, with Korea, Taiwan, Sakhalin and a number of island groups under its formal control. As important as these were to Japan’s image of itself as a modernising nation with aspirations to great power status, the important relations for Japan’s political economy were with China. China took more of Japan’s trade than any other single country and China became the main single supplier of imports into Japan. Once it became clear that Japan was managing the first phase of political-economic modernisation better than China, the Japanese began to see enormous economic opportunities in China. The Japanese saw the market opportunities in China and believed that their own industries could compete effectively with the western powers if they could win the same rights of access as accorded to Britain. France, Germany etc. Remember that the Chinese were forced to acceded to “Unequal Treaties”, which gave the western powers access to China’s ports and trade routes, diplomatic rights, which the Chinese had never before willingly bestowed, and rights of residence and freedom from local laws that emphasised Chinese subservience. The Japanese judged that if they could win these same rights, then their closeness to China, the very low wages in Japanese factories and Japan’s cultural affinities with China were powerful advantages that the western powers lacked. Japan could interpret the Chinese market and work with Chinese systems more effectively than westerners and when these advantages were added to the lower transport and wage costs enjoyed by Japanese firms, the scale of the opportunities became obvious. Japan could not compete with western powers in producing advanced goods, like machinery and other metal products, but it could do very well in light industrial sectors – textiles and processed foods – if it could force the Chinese government to grant the same advantages as had been given under duress to the western powers. Some part of the Japanese interest in Korea in the 1880s and 1890s was designed to provoke tension, conflict and defeat on the Chinese and thereby to win “most favoured nation” status and equality with the western powers.

But Japan’s relations with China were always more complex than those of the western powers. As I have mentioned in a previous lecture, the Japanese saw themselves at the head of an Asian attempt to catch and confront the western powers and push the west out of Asia. This implied a Sino-Japanese alliance, albeit under Japanese leadership and Japanese perceptions of China at this time were framed in the context of China as a “sleeping dragon”. To wake up China, the Japanese quickly made maximum use of the opportunities afforded to them in the Treaty of Shimonoseki, which ended the Sino-Japanese war (not entirely as the Japanese would have preferred). This gave Japan the same rights in China as the western powers, and Japanese capital, labour and firms began to move into the Chinese Treaty Ports. Shanghai, for example, became a great centre for the Japanese cotton textile industry. By 1936, on the eve of the second Sino-Japanese war, Japanese firms accounted for approximately 40 percent of all the mechanised cotton yarn spun in China and almost 60 percent of the mechanised cotton cloth that was woven in China. The Japanese had been able to displace the British from the Chinese textiles market, just as had been predicted in the Meiji period. China became a market and a production base for Japanese textile firms in a way that its formal colonies (principally Taiwan and Korea) did not. But China did not only receive goods from Japan, it also sent goods. In other words, Japan also imported extensively from China. As Japan began to industrialise, its population of course expanded and became more urban. It needed both to import food and to make its own agriculture more efficient, and in both respects Chinese trade facilitated the development of the modern Japanese economy. In the last quarter of the 19th century, Japan primarily imported food from China. Roughly three-quarters of Japan’s imports from China by value were agricultural products. But in the twentieth century, Sino-Japanese trade expanded quickly and the Japanese began to import increasing quantities of coal and natural fertiliser from China, in addition to the foodstuffs. The coal was needed to supplement Japan’s rather meagre domestic reserves and the fertiliser was used to raise the productivity of Japanese agriculture. In other words, these economies were developing along lines, which to some extent were complementary but were also parallel, as Japanese firms became a major force in the industrialisation of China. One of the conundrums of Chinese development in the period from 1911 to 1937 was continuing industrialisation and growth despite domestic political and social turbulence. Part of the answer almost certainly lies with the growing presence of modern Japanese firms in the Chinese Treaty Ports.

But there was also another side to Sino-Japanese relations. The Treaty of Portsmouth that ended the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-5 gave to Japan the Russian lease of the Liaotung peninsula in Manchuria, including the railway that linked it to the main city, Harbin, and ceded to Japan the southern half of Sakhalin. The first entry of the Japanese into Manchuria brought a rather different sort of relationship with China than that developed by most western powers. Instead of the informal imperialism of private firms and preferential trading relationships, the Japanese presence in Manchuria combined the state and private enterprise in ways that were quite distinctively Japanese. The Japanese government ordered that all the former Russian economic and business activities in the Liaotung peninsula should be combined into a new company. The South Manchuria Railway Company was formed in 1906 and acted as the primary vehicle for Japanese overseas investment. In effect, the Japanese involvement in China switched from the south and centre and operating under British auspices, to the north and required a rather more equal relationship between Russia and Japan than was possible between Britain and Japan. The Japanese army in particular had become convinced that China would be broken up by the imperial powers and that it was important for Japan to be included as one of the vested interests in that dismemberment for security reasons. The Japanese army had played its part in finding reasons for the outbreak of conflict with Russia in 1904 and played a leading role in the economic development of the Liaotung peninsula because of its strategic importance. The military was also behind the Japanese grabbing in 1915 (after the outbreak of the First World War) of German concessions to operate railways and mines in Shantung. The Japanese army recognised that Chinese coal mines were vital for the development of the Japanese steel industry and some Chinese mines had already been financed in large part by Japanese banks. Coal and steel were strategically important industries, at least from the perspective of the Japanese army. The Japanese military took the view that China was no longer a sleeping dragon, but a sleeping pig that was about to be cut up and consumed.

While not questioning this view of China, the Japanese Foreign Ministry took a very different view of how to proceed with China. The Foreign Ministry always insisted that Manchuria was Chinese territory, ruled by the Chinese and not by the Japanese. It was also acutely aware that although the First World War had created a power vacuum in China, that the European powers would almost certainly return and that Japan should do nothing to prevent future co-operation with European powers in China. It is probably for this reason that Japan finally decided to enter the First World War. When the likely course of the conflict had become clear, Japan joined on the side of the Allied rather than the Axis powers, probably in anticipation of retaining the German rights in China that it had grabbed in 1915. By 1918, the Japanese military and Foreign Ministry views were reconciled, at least for the moment. Japan was rapidly becoming the major imperial power in China. Its main focus was Manchuria and northern China, and it was developing production in Manchuria in ways that other imperial powers had not. The Japanese saw the agricultural potential of the Manchurian interior and the potential of coal deposits. To extract these resources, the Japanese government brought in private companies and virtually indemnified them against loss by undertaking much of the heavy investment itself. The railway, for example, was extended thanks in large part to government investment. All this economic and military activity implied extensive migration of Japanese labour power into Manchuria (and indeed to the Treaty Ports further south). It was becoming very obvious that Japan was rapidly becoming the major imperial power in China. The Soviet revolution meant that the Russians had other things to think about than their relations with China and Japan, at least in the first instance. The Germans, of course, did not return in any great strength to China after 1918. In fact by 1930, the Japanese in China outnumbered all the British, Americans and other westerners put together. And they had also demonstrated that they were better able to exploit the Unequal Treaty system better than any other foreign power. But there were dangers in this position, when we begin to view Sino-Japanese relations from the Chinese perspective.

The 1911 revolution in China was a nationalist revolution and the ideology of nationalism certainly strengthened and spread down through the Chinese social structure during the decade following the First World War. It is scarcely surprising that the first flowering of nationalism outside the educated elite took place not in Beijing but in Shanghai, where in 1925 there was a rash of strikes against imperialist powers. The growth of the Chinese Nationalist Party, the Guomindang, was very rapid between 1920 and 1925, and turned Chinese nationalism from a series of revolutionary groups into a mass political movement. The ability of the western powers to operate the Unequal Treaty system had always depended upon acquiescence of the Chinese authorities, and at times this was not much more than tacit. The 1911 revolution and the subsequent growth of nationalism broke down the collaborative framework upon which the Unequal Treaty system had depended. In the 1920s, the institutions of foreign imperialism became the target of the growing Chinese nationalist movement and the partial re-unification of China under Chiang Kai-shek brought to power a government committed in principle to the end of the Unequal Treaty system.

The reaction of the imperialist powers to Chinese nationalism differed radically. For the British, there was a period of very rapid reassessment in the mid-1920s. The British government sent troops to Shanghai in 1925 to try to quell anti-British strikes, boycotts and other protests after strikers had been massacred by British police in the international concession. But the British government quickly decided that the cost of trying to control a much stronger Chinese nationalist movement far outweighed any potential benefits from the trade with China, and indicated a willingness to negotiate a revision of the Unequal Treaties. At the same time it attempted to take the lead in supporting the Guomindang government. The British were not really in retreat, but did make a series of concessions to Chinese nationalism. The British decided that its trade with China was not important enough to incur vital risks for its protection. At the same time, the Japanese government was driven in exactly the opposite direction. Its economic interests in China were absolutely as important as those of the British, but relatively speaking China was much more important to Japan than it was to the UK. As the Japanese industrial sector began to grow in the interwar years, and to become dependent on exports for a critical share of production, China loomed larger and larger in economic significance. In an uncertain world economy, such as that of the 1920s, the market and resources of China came to be inextricably linked in many Japanese minds with the health of the Japanese economy. Business pressure groups were very active in making public opinion very aware of the effects on the domestic economy of any disruption of trade with or disturbance of Japanese assets in China. But the direction of Japans’ relations with China from the mid-1920s onwards were once again in the hands of an anxious and largely uncontrolled military elite. They wanted their government to take the vital risks that the British had rejected.

The Japanese had watched with some concern the instability in China during the period of the warlords. The launching of the Northern Expedition to reunite the country in July 1926 by Chiang Kai-shek and his attack in April 1927 on the radicals and Communists in Shanghai turned this concern into something closer to alarm. The Japanese government sent a military expedition to Shandong during the summer of 1927. Shandong province was the location of Japan’s major coal interests, but it was also strategically placed between Nanjing, where the Guomindang had proclaimed its capital in April 1927, and Manchuria, where Japan had supported the local warlord as the best insurance for its economic interests in the province. The warlord, Zhang Zuolin (Chang Tso-lin) had become in effect a puppet of the Japanese and could call, in addition to his own forces, on the Japanese Kwantung Army, which had been sent in 1907 to guard the Japanese interests in the Liaotung peninsula (the Manchurian province of Kwantung). In effect, northern China had become militarised as the Japanese sought to prevent Chiang Kai-shek from adding Manchuria to a re-unified China. Mindful of the cost of war, the Japanese government of the late-1920s wanted to proceed without conflict if at all possible and issued a policy statement that held out the possibility of the sacrifice of Japanese interests in southern China, if the independent status of Manchuria were guaranteed. However, the Chinese Nationalists were not appeased and Chiang Kai-shek marched against Manchurian warlord Zhang Zuolin at his base in Beijing, prompting the Japanese government to send more troops and the inevitable conflict between the two armies. When it seemed that this crisis might be overcome, elements in the Japanese army took events into their own hands. They were convinced that they needed to confront China before it could amass military strength and they took the first of a number of key steps to war by assassinating Zhang Zuolin. This was undertaken by a senior staff officer of the Kwantung army, who hoped to implicate the Chinese and force his own government to take full control in Manchuria and northern China.

However, the army’s plan backfired in the most spectacular fashion. The crisis brought down the Japanese government, which was replaced by a much more liberal, conciliatory Cabinet but it became the victim of a further assassination when the Prime Minister, Hamaguchi, was himself gunned down by a right-wing supporter of the military in November 1930. This introduced a period of enormous turbulence in Japanese political and social life and an era of military adventurism and politically-motivated assassinations. From 1930 to the culmination of a mass attack by junior officers on senior Cabinet ministers in 1936, assassinations became commonplace. There is a danger of over-simplifying this period enormously, but there appear to have been two major problems. The first was the unresolved issue of the military in politics. When we looked at the creation of the Meiji constitution, we noted that the military was permitted to report directly to the emperor and be outside the formal constraint of parliamentary control, such as it was. In the Meiji era, Japan was guided by a relatively small elite of leaders of the clans that had toppled the Tokugawa regime and policy conflicts could be resolved within the elite. But the power of this generation passed at around the time of the First World War and conflicts over priorities became much more difficult to manage from that point. When civilian ministers tried to cut the budget and size of the armed forces in the mid-1920s, the military and civilian establishments became deeply distrustful of each other, paving the way for the conflicts of the 1930s. The second problem was that the military itself was deeply divided. The army and navy fought over resources. There were splits between the leaders of the armed forces and their more junior officers and also fundamentally between a very radical right-wing group that wanted to seize power, militarise society even more than was already happening and prepare for total war and, against them, a more conservative faction that was closer to the emperor. In short, Japanese modernisation had been never taken as its model liberal democracy, but neither had National Socialist Germany nor Fascist Italy at the same period.

The outcome for Sino-Japanese relations was serious, since the period of political instability in Tokyo only underlined that the Japanese Kwantung army was able to control policy-making in Tokyo rather than vice versa. In September 1931, staff officers of the Kwantung army engineered what has become known as the “Manchurian incident”. They exploded a bomb on a section of the South Manchurian Railway, and blamed Chinese troops (who had been confined to barracks in the expectation of just such an incident). Having blamed the Chinese, the Kwantung army then occupied the whole of Manchuria, without opposition from the Chinese army, which withdrew to the south. All this was done without instruction, indeed in spite of instruction, from the civilian government in Tokyo. There are also strong indications that the general staff in Tokyo were at least in part in on the plot and frustrated efforts of civilian politicians to bring the Kwantung army under control. The military had seized control of Japanese foreign policy and in doing so had taken a firm grip over the direction of Japan’s economic policy. The area seized by the Kwantung army was vast, amounting to four Chinese provinces and a population of approximately 30 million people when the process of annexation had been completed in 1934. Thus, the Japanese response to the rise of Chinese nationalism and the weakening of the Treaty Port system was to extend colonialism and to rely on formal rather than informal empire.

Chiang Kai-shek had ordered his troops in the area to withdraw to the south because he was already fighting against a major coalition of Chinese warlords, including some former members of his own government. He also tended to give priority to fighting the Communists over confronting the Japanese. He may also have expected international opinion to resolve the issue in China’s favour, and the main institution of international order, the League of Nations, did order the Japanese to withdraw. But the League was a toothless body, and the Japanese simply ignored the call and instead installed the last Qing emperor, the deposed Pu Yi, as the puppet ruler of Japanese controlled Manchuria. At the same time, the territory was re-named Manchukuo. But the Kwantung army did not receive the security it craved from the occupation of Manchukuo. First, Japan’s international isolation was increased by its failure to obey the League. The leaders of Japan in the late 19th and early 20th centuries had known that Japan was too economically and diplomatically weak to act on its own. It needed to conclude treaties and alliances with the major powers. These treaties were strained throughout the 1920s in the efforts to control the building of battleships, the advanced military technology of the day. But the Manchurian incident put Japan outside the international treaty system, making it to some extent a rogue state. In fact, the sense of insecurity probably increased because by occupying this part of the Chinese mainland Japan acquired a land border with the new Soviet Union, and it distrusted the USSR even more than China. There were new splits in the military establishment between those who believed that China posed the greater threat and those who wished to concentrate Japan’s military resources against the USSR.

In fact, these two aims proceeded side-by-side during the mid-1930s. The Japanese concluded an anti-USSR treaty with Germany in 1936. It also persuaded Chiang Kai-shek to conclude a peace under which the Japanese army was allowed to station troops as far south as the Great Wall, and the remainder of Hebei province to the south would be demilitarised, but again this was insufficient for the Japanese army in the field. They constantly stirred up trouble with Chinese forces and eventually drove the two countries to war by firing on Chinese troops at the Marco Polo Bridge north of Beijing. But this was a step too far for Chiang Kai-shek who had been losing public support in China for his continuing concentration on the Communists in the face of obvious Japanese bellicosity. The two countries each sent additional armies to the Beijing area, but the Japanese, better equipped and much better organised, routed the Chinese armies in the north and in stages pushed further and further south. By 1939, the front line had been pushed down to the city of Chengsha in Hunan province.

We have already seen that the impact on the Chinese economy was pretty disastrous. Having survived the period of the fight against the warlords and the civil war in reasonable shape, the loss of so much territory to the Japanese was devastating for the Nationalist government, though the output of the whole Chinese economy suffered much less as the Japanese used the resources of the Manchukuo in its war effort. The war with China also had economic consequences for Japan. It is not always easy to disentangle cause and effect, because the world depression of the years 1929-32 also had a severe impact on Japan. The war had the impact of straining the international economy and causing the creating of national and imperial currency blocs. British trade switched heavily towards the group of countries that used sterling as their major international currency (primarily those countries of the Empire and also some others in Europe and South America with long-standing and close trade relationships with Britain). Similar influences affected Japan. Its trade patterns shifted definitely towards its Asian colonies, Korea, Taiwan and Manchukuo. At the same time the build up of military demands brought expansion to the metals, engineering and heavy chemicals industries, all of which are associated in some way with the arms economy. However, the expansion of military demands led inexorably to inflation and balance of payments difficulties and the growth of controls over the economy to ensure that military requirements were given priority in the allocation of resources. This only exacerbated the long-standing conflict between the military and civilian interests in policy-making, and eroded basic freedoms in fairly drastic ways. Ordinary people found less to consume, because so much was required for the military economy, while having to work harder for less real purchasing power. In some ways, therefore, the Japanese economy gained from this pattern of continuing conflict with China, in that the capacity of heavy industry was increased, but ordinary Japanese citizens received almost no benefit. The economy was on a war course, and had been almost since the early 1930s, resulting in a decade of privation for Japanese consumers even before the Pacific war erupted on 7 December 1941.

Unequal Treaties – forced on China & Japan by the Imperialist Powers

Sino-Japanese War of 1894-5 ended by the Treaty of Shimonoseki

Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5 ended by the Treaty of Portsmouth Most favoured nation status gives special trade conditions to a single or specified group of nations

Liaotung peninsula (Manchuria) - Russian concessions here ceded to Japan by Treaty of Portsmouth

Harbin – main city of Manchuria

Sakhalinisland off the Russian coast, north of Hokkaido

Kwantung army – Japanese army sent to Liaotung peninsula

Shantung – province of northern China in which coal was found

Guomindang – Chinese Nationalist Party (led by Chiang Kai-shek)

Zhang Zuolin – Chinese warlord in northern China who supported Chiang against the CCP but was used by the Japanese

Hamaguchi – relatively liberal Japanese PM assassinated by militarists

Manchurian incident – Japanese military occupies Manchuria

Pu Yi – Qing (Chinese) emperor deposed in 1912 and made head of state of Manchukuo by the Japanese in 1934

Manchukuo – Japanese-controlled Manchuria (from 1932)

Hebeiprovince of northern China, surrounding Beijing

Changsha – major city of southern China province of Hunan

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