THE incident which occurred in Manchuria during the night of September 18 set in motion a train of events of great magnitude. The incident itself was unimportant: a gunmen's fight in New York or a riot of unemployed in London would produce as many casualties. Yet the encounter between a handful of Chinese and Japanese troops at Mukden has caused the world to reëxamine the whole peace machinery which has been set up since the World War, and in the light of that study to question whether it is advisable or possible to move rapidly toward a reduction of armaments. The statesmen of the world are no longer asked what would the League do in case of a threat of war, but what is the League able to do. The answer has uncovered many defects in the existing world organization. Perhaps one of these defects is the tendency to regard all international situations of this kind on a uniform basis.

The relations between nations are dictated by geographical, racial and economic considerations. Peace is preserved so far as the satisfaction of these considerations allows. Usually it is preserved by the exercise of force -- force of arms, force of public opinion, or in some cases perhaps only the force of habit. When some incident mars the friendly intercourse between two or more peoples, force in some form must be applied to secure a return to the status quo ante or to effect a new equilibrium. We find this obvious fact exemplified today in the Manchurian problem. Here geographical, racial and economic factors all come into play, and incidents between China, Japan and Russia are perennial. Three major wars have occurred in this region in less than four decades, besides innumerable occasions on which one side or the other has resorted to force. And now a conflict is taking place which seems of more than ordinary importance. With the passage of succeeding weeks of negotiation it has come to seem reasonably certain that all the world can count on finding is some formula for the appeasement of the immediate disturbance. The fundamental issues will, perforce, be left as unsettled as ever. For the nations involved in Manchuria have a very different set of values from those which guide the European nations that the League has had to deal with in the past; and in the present instance one of the protagonists is not a well-knit and thoroughly responsible political entity.

The sequence of events since September 18 has been something as follows. The Japanese authorities accused Chinese troops of dynamiting a section of the South Manchuria Railway track near Mukden. Now the treaty rights of Japan include the privilege and duty of guarding this line. The Japanese therefore drove off the Chinese, and in the ensuing fight both Japanese and Chinese troops are known to have been killed. On the other hand, the Chinese claim that the attack was entirely unprovoked. Loaded guns have a way of going off, and it will never be known in the west who fired the first shot; but obviously it takes two to make a fight, and nobody doubts that there was a fight of substantial proportions. Japan immediately moved with great swiftness and efficiency and captured the Chinese city of Mukden early in the morning of September 19. Within a few days the principal cities along the South Manchuria Railway line had been occupied by Japanese troops, and the Chinese armies had been scattered and many of their soldiers disarmed. Japan also promptly sent military expeditions to cities outside the railway zone for the ostensible purpose of offering protection to Japanese settlers. Expeditions have since been made for other reasons, such as to repair the railway bridge over the Nonni River near Anganchi. This resulted in an engagement between Japanese troops and the mercenary army of General Ma Chan-shan, a local leader owning only the sketchiest sort of allegiance to the central government of China.

The initial conflict near Mukden was merely the culmination of a series of minor incidents and took on unusual importance only because the issue happened to be physically joined. Other recent disturbances had served to prepare the fuse which was there ignited. Japan contends that China has been carrying out a program of covert hostility with the definite purpose of undermining Japan's treaty interests. The most important of these are a series of railway, mining and land concessions which for all practical purposes amount to an imperium in imperio. As a prize of the Russo-Japanese War of 1905, Japan inherited the southern branch of the Chinese Eastern Railway, extending from Changchun to Dairen.[i] Having secured China's ratification of this transfer of ownership, Japan also secured the concession to build another line running from Mukden to Antung on the Korean border. Another inheritance from Russia, also ratified by China, was a strip of territory encircling the sea terminal of the railway at Dairen, known as the Leased Territory of Kwantung. Capping all these other privileges, Japan acquired a strip of land on either side of the South Manchuria Railway system, of undetermined extent, known as the railway zone. The time limit of these concessions was extended, and adjacent mining rights were reserved, by a treaty which China signed and ratified in 1915 following delivery of a Japanese ultimatum. The treaty of 1915 also gave permission for foreigners to lease land in South Manchuria and Eastern Inner Mongolia -- a permission which China has always denied to non-Chinese anywhere in her domain. At the Washington Conference in 1922 China sought abrogation of this treaty on the ground that it had been signed under duress.

Newspaper dispatches from the Far East during the past year have substantiated Japan's repeated complaints that China, besides continuing to deny the legitimacy of the Japanese position, had begun a covert campaign to bring it to an end. Japan declares that there are more than three hundred outstanding cases in which her rights have been violated, and that while negotiations over some of them have been begun, not one has been settled. So far as can be learned, no list of these cases has ever been issued in the English language; but the Japanese authorities have supplied information to the author which makes it possible to indicate their general nature. They fall into the following categories:

Railroad Matters: Violation by China of her undertaking to protect the Japanese-owned South Manchuria Railway against the building of Chinese parallel lines. Interference with the taking of ballast for railroad tracks from quarries. Attacks by Chinese on the operators of the South Manchuria Railway. Unwillingness of Chinese to implement contracts already signed for the construction of other railways by the Japanese.

Mining Matters: Violations of treaties by China with regard to the export duty of Fushun and Yentai coal. Violations of contracts by China regarding Sino-Japanese joint concerns, such as the Fuchow Clay Company. Arbitrary annulment of mining rights owned by Japanese.

Land Matters: Obstructions placed by China in the way of the purchase of land for railroad use. Delay in the settlement of claims made by Japanese Agricultural Development Companies. Violations by China of treaties with regard to lease and purchase of lands.

Taxation Matters: Imposition of various kinds of taxes at the Dairen Custom House, as well as in the Railway Zone, in violation of the treaty rights granted to Japanese.

Korean Matters: Prohibition of residence, lease and purchase of lands, imposition of discriminating taxes in violation of the treaty, and annulment of extraterritorial rights of Koreans.

In addition, Japan complains of innumerable insults and irritating actions against her nationals, of the issuance of secret instructions to local Chinese government officials to ignore Japanese rights, to foster anti-Japanese education among Chinese school children, and to obstruct Japanese residence and travel in Manchuria. Any foreigner who has had to reside in China during periods of anti-foreign agitation will at once recognize what a severe strain such tactics put on the nerves. In such circumstances the question of security rapidly loses its academic character; and military men whose training leads them to retaliate in the face of danger are of course particularly hard to restrain. Not all aggression is by military force. A thousand pin pricks may be as effective as a slash of the sabre. China chose to gain her ends by means that technically were pacific. But Japan considered Chinese aggression against Japanese treaty rights no less real because covertly pursued. And finally she struck back, openly and hard. She claims that her treaty engagements with other Powers -- e.g., the Kellogg Pact and the Nine Power Treaty -- do not limit her right to intervene in China and afford protection to her nationals which Chinese officials fail to give.

On the other hand, Japan secured the special position which she occupies in Manchuria as the result of aggression and of treaty privileges extracted under pressure. The fact that she paid dearly in blood and treasure for her privileges is no extenuation of the methods used in obtaining them, although it has made Japanese public opinion particularly sensitive to any infringement of the Japanese position. Japan can point out that national boundaries usually have been determined in the first place by war. She might, for instance, remind the United States that our own boundary was moved southward as a result of the war with Mexico, and ask us how we would feel if it were now suggested that the arrangement should be repudiated because the treaty of 1848 was signed under duress. Actually the two cases are not analogous, for Japan declares that she does not seek to violate the territorial integrity of China in Manchuria, but only to secure her interests there. She chooses to regard the use of force in the present instance only as police action designed to protect Japanese lives and property. This so-called police action has taken Japanese troops outside of the South Manchuria Railway zone, in which she is entitled by treaty to maintain a force of some 15,000 men, and has spread them along all the Chinese railways in Manchuria built with Japanese capital. And these troops have embarked on military adventures which in the eyes of the world constitute intervention.

Let us turn now to consider the fundamental facts which underlie the attitudes of Japan and China. Japan's compelling motives are diverse, but if one were to seek a single word to express them it would be the word "security." Security may not have been Japan's principal aim when first she sought to extend her influence to the mainland of Asia; but that having been done, she came to regard her position there as vitally important, and there has arisen in the Japanese popular mind the belief that Manchuria is Japan's first line of national defense. Japanese strategy is not aimed alone or even primarily at China, who as a result of internal strife lies all but prostrate. It is directed primarily at Russia. Japan and Russia both regard Manchuria as a kind of common backyard, where they are forced for the time being to meet on sufferance. When Russia established herself throughout the whole of this backyard, the Japanese in 1905 rose as one man to displace her.

So much for the strategic aspect of Japan's problem of security. She also seeks economic security. Manchuria has raw materials which Japan sorely needs. Food is there for her constantly increasing population, and coal and iron for her manufacturing industries. The trade statistics show that Manchuria's economic ties with Japan are substantially stronger than those with China, or indeed than those with China and all other countries combined. Imports from Japan through South Manchurian ports during the past few years have averaged about 70 percent of the total. Exports to Japan have exceeded 75 percent, but have shown a decline since 1926. In 1926 exports to Japan and Korea were 72.5 percent of the total; in 1927, 69.3 percent; in 1928, 67.2 percent. Japan is the largest purchaser of Manchurian beans, bean cake, silk, cereals, coal, iron and iron manufactures, as is shown by the table[ii] on the following page.


(in Millions of Haikwan Taels)
        Japan and Korea
  To Japan To Korea Total Exports Percent of Total
Beans 34.3 1.2 108.3 32.7
Bean Cake 34.0 4.8 57.2 67.8
Coal and Coke 16.2 3.3 34.9 55.8
Silk and Silk Products 7.5 .. 11.3 66.3
Iron and Iron        
  Manufactures 6.4 .4 7.5 90.6
Wheat 3.1 .2 3.7 89.1
Millet 1.3 19.6 21.2 98.5

The industrial development of Japan is, of course, built on iron and coal. She secures an important share of these essentials from Manchuria. For instance, probably half of the pig iron imported into Japan comes from Manchuria, and imports are roughly one-fourth of local Japanese production. In the case of coal, Manchuria's production is about a fourth of Japan's. Of the Manchurian coal perhaps a third is exported to Japan. While the supply of these materials is important in peace time, in case of war Japan's other foreign sources might be cut off; then the Manchurian coal and iron would be indispensable.

When Japan counts up her reserves of iron and coal she becomes more convinced than ever that her very life depends on the control of the Manchurian mines and of the transportation facilities which will bring their output to her shores. At the present rate of consumption the iron ore reserves in Japan are entirely inadequate. If domestic ore alone were used to manufacture the iron and steel consumed annually in Japan, the estimated utilizable ore would be exhausted in thirteen years and the total reserves, including low grade ores, in about twenty-five years. In coal, Japan is somewhat better off. Her reserves amount to about 118 tons per capita, while her present annual consumption is about half a ton per capita; at this rate her reserves might be expected to last for over two hundred years. But Japan is only partly industrialized. The per capita consumption of coal in the United States, for instance, is about four tons per year. At this rate, and discounting imports, Japan's reserves would be exhausted in a generation.[iii]

These facts are cited to explain the feeling of dependence on Manchuria which has developed among the Japanese people. And as the years pass -- as Japan's reserves of raw materials dwindle still further, as her population grows, and as she continues to extend her investments in Manchuria -- this feeling will certainly not diminish, but may be expected to broaden and deepen.

China is no less aroused. She likes to think that special rights in Manchuria were stolen from her by Russia, who later lost the spoils to Japan. She is on sounder ground when she points out that Manchuria in law and in fact is an integral part of China. Yet because of Japanese influence there, the Chinese officials are constantly being impeded in the exercise of government. Furthermore, the economic organization of the region has passed out of Chinese hands due to the dominating influence of the South Manchuria Railway, which controls the outlet to world markets. She also emphasizes the fact that the population of Manchuria is 96 percent Chinese, that during the past few years some 5 million new Chinese settlers have made their homes there, and that it is these Chinese people who have developed the country by the sweat of their brow -- even though it may have been under a pax Japonica.

Japan seeks to justify her course in Manchuria on legal grounds. She has categorically denied any intention of infringing on the territorial integrity of China or the Open Door, both principles which are emphasized in the Nine Power Pact of 1922. She declares her only desire is to defend the sanctity of existing treaties. To this China replies that if Japan has a legal right to be in Manchuria she has no moral right to be there; and as for the legal aspects of the affair, she says that Japan's action in sending troops outside the railway zone is a breach of the very treaties which she pretends to be so desirous of upholding. The fact is that each side has a tenable legal case, which is precisely why outside nations have found it so difficult to effect any compromise.

When the recent explosion occurred the League of Nations sought a way of fulfilling its duty to prevent war. As the United States is a signatory of the Pact of Paris jointly with states members of the League of Nations, Washington associated itself with the League's effort by appointing a representative to sit with the Council. The Council's task was complicated by the fact that oriental peoples do not even pretend to be interested in the question of peace, as such, in the way that occidental nations have been interested since the Great War. In China civil war is chronic, natural, accepted. Japan remembers that Chinese soil has been subject to many interventions since the Covenant of the League was adopted, and that none of them brought any protest from Geneva. Russia as recently as 1929 embarked on an armed intervention in Manchuria. Now Japan has intervened there, and the League, on China's solicitation, has decided to regard this action as a threat of war. It would be interesting to speculate why those who guide the League's destinies thought the duty to take action which was avoided in former instances should no longer be set aside; but that is not the subject of this article. The fact remains that even if one disagrees with the theory that Japan's intervention in Manchuria constituted a threat of war, it beyond doubt constituted a violation of Article 2 of the Kellogg Pact pledging the nations to the settlement of disputes by peaceful means.

International controversies, even in distant lands, seem to lend themselves to partisanship, and this partisanship is very often expressed with an intemperance altogether at variance with the pacific ends that foreign observers might be supposed to have in view. This is particularly so in America, and no better example is available than the declaration made on the Manchurian crisis by Senator Borah, Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee of the United States Senate. In the New York Times of September 25 he was reported to have said in a speech delivered at the University of Idaho on the preceding day that Japan's action in Manchuria violated the Kellogg-Briand Pact, the League of Nations Covenant, the Versailles Treaty, and "every international law." Mr. Borah likes to be regarded as an ardent friend of peace. Yet such a statement, made less than a week after the incident at Mukden, before an impartial investigation had been made, and without taking any account of the complex factors involved, could hardly be expected to contribute to a peaceful solution of the difficulty. Declarations of that nature coming from one in a position of high authority and setting forth views which might be considered abroad as representing American official opinion may well have been a determining factor in leading Japan to object formally to American participation in the League's study of the dispute.

What the world needs is an effective and stable government in Manchuria, and the preservation of order. The Chinese authorities, judging by conditions in other parts of their domain, would find it next to impossible to provide this within any reasonable time. Japan, if given the authority, could maintain at least the outward semblance of peace. Suggestions have been numerous as to how the gap might be bridged until China is able to govern Manchuria as it should be governed, in its own interest and in the interest of other nations. Two of them seem worthy of mention. First, the League of Nations might propose, with China's consent, to establish a mandate over this territory and might appoint Japan as the mandatory power. Sovereignty would remain in the hands of China, but jurisdiction would rest with the League. Japan would thus acquire international sanction for her actions in Manchuria, but they also would be subject to international review; China might regard this as preferable to leaving Japan the scope for single-handed action which she now enjoys under the 1915 treaty. It would be difficult for Chinese Nationalism to accept such a plan, for it would imply Chinese incompetence to rule; but it might seem acceptable as an alternative to absolute Japanese control. Japan, on the other hand, might be unwilling to accept supervision; but it would give her security, and if it could be accomplished in a friendly spirit it might lead to those cordial relations with China essential for Japanese trade. The second suggestion is that an international police force be established in Manchuria, headed by an officer appointed by and answerable to the League, and with both Chinese and Japanese troops under his command. Its duty would be to preserve law and order, suppress banditry, and furnish protection for Chinese and foreign lives and property in Manchuria.

Neither of these suggestions seems possible of adoption at the moment, and time would be required to carry either into effect. But either of them would provide a mechanism by which the good offices of the League of Nations might constantly and evenly be brought into play. Since the League has entered the present controversy, it is important that it should continue its efforts until some solution has been reached, even one which may not be satisfactory to the League's highest ideals. To withdraw entirely would mean loss of prestige. But it seems clear that in such confused circumstances the usefulness of the League must lie in finding some way to draw China and Japan together, not in attempting to isolate one nation as the aggressor and applying coercive measures to it. Even if the latter course were adopted, and even if it succeeded temporarily, the fundamental elements in the Manchurian situation would not be resolved and a series of resistances would be set up which in the end might well prove more damaging than helpful.

We shall probably not live to see a permanent settlement of the Manchurian problem, fair to all parties concerned and leaving no animosities to germinate the seeds of future conflicts. The "solution " of the present crisis should be taken to be the reëstablishment of an equilibrium, where armed conflict is no longer the rule and where the inhabitants are permitted to return to normal peaceful pursuits. The underlying ambitions of both China and Japan are deep-seated and, as far as can be seen, permanent. The inexorable forces of nationality, of economic necessity, of human capability -- the forces which in the end must determine the fate of nations -- will continue gradually to shape the destiny of Manchuria. Just what will be the end we cannot see. The course of true statesmanship would seem to be to recognize the forces involved, and to lay plans which take them into account, rather than to make the vain effort to force China and Japan to conform to a set code of procedure considered desirable by nations in the west. The League of Nations and the Kellogg Pact are the product of western twentieth-century reasoning. In applying them to seventeenth-century eastern problems their limitations must be clearly recognized.

The conflict of interests in Manchuria may be studied on the above railway map. To Russia, the most important line is the Chinese Eastern Railway. Extending from Manchouli to Pogranichnaya, it constitutes an integral part of the direct route from European Russia to Vladivostok. Japan's main interests are in southern Manchuria, and thus center about the South Manchuria Railway, which joins the Chinese Eastern at Changchun and extends southward to Dairen. There is a constant struggle between the Chinese Eastern and the South Manchuria for through traffic, the Russians wishing to route freight to Vladivostok, the Japanese to Dairen. The Japanese aim to complete the line from Changchun to the port of Rashin, in Korea, and so secure a more direct route to northern Japan. The Chinese, by building lines parallel to the South Manchuria, hope to become independent of it. They wish to develop the port of Hulutao, and eventually to complete the line Tungliao-Taonan-Solun-Manchouli. In that event the railway system of China proper would have direct access to the Russian border, and both the Chinese Eastern and the South Manchuria would suffer.

[i] Under Japanese occupancy this part of the Chinese Eastern Railway is called the South Manchuria Railway. See map on page 230.

[ii] Herbert Feis: "The International Trade of Manchuria." New York: Carnegie Endowment, April 1931.

[iii] "Japan's Economic Position," by John E. Orchard. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1930.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • WALTER H. MALLORY, Executive Director of the Council on Foreign Relations; author of "China: Land of Famine"
  • More By Walter H. Mallory