Washington’s Missing China Strategy
To Counter Beijing, the Biden Administration Needs to Decide What It Wants
FOUR recent deliberate moves by Japan have aroused suspicion and resentment in many parts of the world. By invading Manchuria and establishing the state of Manchukuo, Japan in 1931 issued a challenge to the world's effort to set up workable machinery for the peaceful settlement of international disputes. That challenge went unanswered, for no state, not even China, was prepared to reply in kind. In 1933 Japan began a drive for trade predominance in markets hitherto regarded as peculiarly the field of Western enterprise. To this challenge there was a prompt response in the form of tariff and quota restrictions aimed at Japanese goods. In recent months Japanese leaders have expressed a dissatisfaction with existing naval ratios and have demanded legal equality with the United States and Great Britain. Finally, on April 17, 1934, the spokesman of the Japanese Foreign Office issued an open claim on Japan's behalf to a position of paramountcy in the Far East, seemingly in disregard of the interests of other major Powers and of formal legal obligations.
In other words, Japanese statesmen, usually farsighted and realistic, appear not to hesitate in pursuing aims certain to provoke international ill-will. A careful observer should at once suspect the existence of some impelling cause behind these manifestations of aggressive policy. It is not enough to say that the Japanese Government and people are at the mercy of a reckless military clique. The Japanese people are disciplined but neither docile nor unintelligent. They have been presented with a reasoned defense of recent foreign policy, and their constant support is based in large part on a line of argument worthy at any rate of repetition in the United States in the interests of mutual understanding. Japan is confronted with a pressing problem; her foreign policy, whether wise or unwise, can be understood only when it is examined with relation to the necessity for solving that problem.
For at least two decades Japan's foreign policy has been chiefly directed towards the alleviation of overcrowding and unrest resulting from excess population. In 1637 the Tokugawa Shogun, Iyeyasu, closed Japan to foreign intercourse and began an era which was not to end until the "hermit nation's" doors were opened in 1853. By that time the desirable empty areas of the earth had been acquired by the white races. For a century and a half prior to the Meiji restoration in 1867, Japan's population remained stationary at about thirty millions. Then the New Japan plunged into a program designed and destined to place herself on a plane of material equality with the states of the Western World. During the half-century from 1860 to 1910 the Japanese nation experienced a series of political, social, and economic upheavals fully equivalent in their combined effect to the European Reformation, Renaissance and Industrial Revolution, as well as the French Revolution. Almost overnight Japan was transformed from a mediæval state with a feudal society to a modern state ranked with the Great Powers of the world. The rapidity of that transformation is illustrated by the fact that one may find today in the modern cities of Japan men who in their youth battled in suits of armor and with the deadly two-handed sword of feudal samurai.
The transformation of mediæval Japan into a modern industrial state encouraged a correspondingly rapid increase in population. A whole new class of society, the factory proletariat, was called into being as an inevitable accompaniment of the industrial revolution. People flocked to rising industrial centers, which trebled in size from 1890 to 1925, while the population of the countryside increased only seven percent. Government-created factories called for workers, and the overflow of the farms provided them. In the first four decades of modern Japan, from 1875 to 1914, the population nearly doubled. This population increase was welcomed and absorbed. By 1925 Japan found her industrial labor markets saturated; but the population increase continued. Japan had advanced in the Western sciences of medicine, sanitation, engineering, etc., to a point where she assured her people of a "European" death rate of 17.72/1000, while they continued to increase at an "Oriental" birth rate of 32.92/1000. Moreover, this birth rate grew at a pace unparalleled in history (25/1000 in 1872, 32.92/1000 in 1926). The net result has been an alarming increase in population, far beyond the normal needs of the industrial growth which gave it impetus. In 1932 the natural increase, i.e., the difference between births and deaths, reached the peak of over one million. Today, the population of Japan proper is 66,000,000 and the most conservative Japanese study shows the probability that by 1950 it will reach 78,000,000. After that time, assuming the present tendency towards lower fecundity continues, annual births will decrease and the population will probably never exceed 94,000,000. Japan, therefore, is facing a situation which cannot be deemed insoluble, but it is one which calls urgently for immediate alleviation.
What does this mean to the Japanese people? Each year for the next fifteen years there will be an additional million mouths to feed, and 250,000 new jobs to find. With 959 inhabitants for every square kilometer of cultivated land, Japan's population, in terms of persons per unit of cultivated ground, is twice as dense as that of China. It is said that a common impression of Western travellers in Japan is a feeling that one is constantly moving in cities and suburbs of cities. The effect of over-population is not so apparent in the size of the unemployed in the cities as it is in the excessive cutting up of land holdings, which are split into smaller and smaller plots to absorb the increase in family numbers. The average agricultural family of five today extracts a living from about two acres of soil. Economic and social pressure urges young men to compete fiercely for relatively secure positions in the government service. A few months ago 10,000 candidates competed for 465 places in the military academy; 300 Imperial University graduates recently fought for eleven places in the diplomatic and consular services. All branches of the government are over-supplied with officials, and it is not uncommon to hear competent observers state that the Japanese bureaucracy is as large and ubiquitous as it is simply because the government has been practically compelled to create places for the thousands of ambitious and brilliant young men who come forward year after year from the colleges and technical schools. Frequent suicides among young intellectuals are ominous of middle-class distress.
How to check this remarkable increase in population or dispose of the excess is Japan's pressing problem. For two decades Japanese leaders viewed the situation with increasing alarm and have examined four possible remedies.
1. Birth control is immediately suggested as a remedy. It cannot solve the problem, however, for the simple reason that the workers are already born. Moreover, the mass of public opinion is so hostile to this suggestion that it is practically never proposed, even as a future palliative. It is not unusual to hear the suggestion opposed as a foreign plot to undermine Japan's prestige. There is also some religious hostility based on the view that "ancestors are entitled to the good deeds of many descendants." In Japan family worship remains both a sacred and a patriotic duty. Birth control offers no immediate or effective solution to the existing problem.
2. For a short time emigration seemed to offer possibilities, but its limitations are now only too obvious. The Japanese people are extremely reluctant to leave their homeland, even for lands where opportunity is great and conditions are inviting. Their natural inhibitions are fortified by geographical and legal prohibitions. In the lands which are still legally open to Japanese immigrants, the climatic conditions are forbidding or attract workers with whom the Japanese cannot compete. The tropics, for example, entail competition with natives or Chinese laborers working under a standard of living which Japanese laborers cannot meet. Manchuria possesses a climate in the main too rigorous for Japanese farmers. The government finds great difficulty in inducing colonists to go even to the Japanese islands of Hokkaido and Formosa. Korea was once regarded as an outlet for Japanese colonists, but the fact is that the number of Koreans who have emigrated to Japan since 1910 exceeds the number of Japanese who have emigrated to Korea in the same period. The United States and the British Dominions have legally closed the door to Japanese immigration. Only South America remains, and there Brazil alone seems to offer opportunity. In spite of the subsidies which the Japanese Government has offered, however, Brazil has attracted less than 150,000 Japanese to date. Even this outlet is apparently soon to be closed, for a Brazilian constitutional amendment of May 1934 drastically limits the entry of Japanese.
This turning of the tide has been general in nearly all countries which in the past have attracted Japanese emigrants. The year 1930 showed a decrease of over 30 percent in the number of Japanese residing abroad as compared with the previous year, and the decrease has continued. Official sources attribute this fact to "unfavorable social and other conditions." The total number of Japanese emigrants abroad today represents less than half the annual net increase in population at home and the number of repatriates tends to increase.
3. The possibilities of improving agricultural methods and extending cultivated areas in order to increase home food supplies and absorb rural labor are not great. It is estimated that a general increase of 20 percent in agricultural returns might be effected by a greater use of scientific methods, grain selection, rotation of crops, and use of fertilizers; and steps are being taken in this direction. The government is attempting also to extend the ricegrowing area in Central and Northern Japan. By applying both intensive and extensive agricultural improvement, it hopes to add the equivalent of 75,000 acres yearly to production totals. This is inadequate, however, not merely because the maximum yield per acre is being rapidly approached, but because 142,000 acres must be added each year to meet the rice requirements alone of the annual increase in population.
4. Birth control, emigration, and agricultural improvement have all been examined or tried as solutions for population pressure without satisfactory result. The Japanese Government has chosen to meet the situation by industrialization at home. It has been found an easier task to export merchandise than to induce Japanese to settle abroad or to persuade unwelcoming countries to accept them. Extension of the economic frontier has, in the case of Manchuria, resulted in extension of political control, but even there the motive was protection of economic interests. In essence, industrialization means the creation of large manufacturing centers which will absorb the surplus farm workers. Japanese goods are now flooding world markets, and the proceeds are used to purchase food supplies and raw materials with which to feed the excess population, give them jobs, and provide new exports.
Japan's challenge is to the industrial states of the West and in the field of industry. Paradoxically, she lacks nearly all the requirements of modern industrial development. Great Britain and the United States control sixty percent of the world's coal; Japan's reserves of 7½ billion tons will last less than forty years at a stage of industrialization equivalent to that of Germany. There is in Japan no geological promise of oil, and today she imports sixty percent of her needs. Her supply of iron-ore is limited to a few deposits which produce less than half the output of Luxembourg, with a population of 300,000; the equivalent of her total reserves is consumed every twenty months in the United States. More than half of her iron and steel supplies come from overseas. Two-thirds of her water power is already harnessed and in use. Finally, she imports practically all her cotton, rubber, lead, zinc, sugar and dyes. Raw materials, indeed, constitute seventy percent of her total imports and must continue to come from overseas in increasing proportion. The outlying possessions of Korea, Formosa, and Karafuto consume the whole of their output of coal, ore, and cotton. It is not unnatural for Japanese leaders to regard Manchuria as a "life line," for that territory offers deposits of coal, iron ore, cotton-growing areas, and huge supplies of the staple food, soya beans. The coal resources of Manchuria are frequently minimized, but the South Manchurian Railway Company estimates the reserves at 2,700,000,000 metric tons. More than 2,000,000 tons of Fushun coal are exported to Japan yearly from a reserve of a billion tons. Fushun coal, like the 100,000,000 tons in reserve in Penchi, is of superior quality. Manchuria, and indeed all of North China, must loom large in the industrialization plans of Japan.
In her aggressive policy towards China, Japan has given evidence of her determination to control the immediate sources of those raw materials which are necessary to bring about the industrialization of her homeland. But industrialization involves also the sale of manufactured articles in foreign markets, and Japan has learned that an aggressive foreign policy does not guarantee or create stable markets for exports. That the Japanese drive for export trade which began in 1932 has been over-successful is shown by the threats and measures of reprisal employed by her chief competitors. Her export trade has increased in two years by 63 percent, from 1,146,000,000 yen in 1931 to 1,861,- 000,000 yen in 1933, and the gain has continued month by month this year, until Japan is now the world's leading exporter of rayon, cotton textiles, matches, and raw silk. Last year her textile mills paid dividends of 18 percent. Her sales to Latin America for the first three months of 1934 doubled those for the same period in 1933. Her exports to the Philippine Islands in the first quarter of 1934 almost doubled those of the first quarter of 1933. In 1932 her exports to Afghanistan totalled one million yen; in 1933 they jumped to twenty-three million yen.
Several factors have contributed to the success of this export trade offensive, but none of them can be called purely accidental. Labor costs in Japan are low, not merely because a simple standard of life prevails among her laborers, but also because her mills and factories are equipped with up-to-date machinery. On a Toyoda spinning machine one operative cares for from twenty to forty spindles, and the number tends to advance; in England the average is from four to eight, and the number is stationary. By going off gold, Japan gave her foreign customers a price reduction of some sixty percent on Japanese goods. The government has made free use of subsidies, especially to shipping interests, which are thereby induced to extend their services into remote markets. Competent observers have noted the high degree of unification of promotional and sales work, including coöperation in manufacture, unified governmental export control, conditioning and inspection, preferences to Japanese financing, insurance, warehousing and shipping, and the establishment of sales agencies abroad. Trade missions and display boats, or "floating sample marts," are constantly opening up new fields -- along the African coast, in Egypt, India, Brazil, Ecuador, Morocco, Australia, Java, Iraq, Persia, and Afghanistan. If potential customers have no cash, barter terms are proposed. It was recently reported that Japan had offered to trade 100,000,000 yen worth of warships for Brazilian coffee, and one warship for a quantity of Mexican oil.
Mere enumeration of the factors which have enabled Japan in recent months to undersell her competitors in markets traditionally monopolized by them indicates that Japanese manufacturers have simply become all too efficient in Western industrial methods. American, British, and French warships compelled Japan to open her doors and to accept the material standards of the West. Now Japan finds that she can alleviate her population problem only by an industrialization program which menaces the economic superiority of her aggressive tutors in fields long peculiarly their own.
In the fall of 1931 the virtual military conquest of Manchuria by Japan startled the world. The Sino-Japanese crisis, with all its issues, was brought before a world tribunal for debate and a mild form of judgment. Since 1932 Japan's trade offensive has been even more effective and successful than was her Manchurian venture, but no world tribunal exists to try the merits of Japan's case. In reality, political control of Manchuria is merely incidental to Japan's industrialization program, for the impelling reason behind the Manchurian episode was Japan's need for more direct control of raw materials and markets in the interest of expanding trade. Japan's trade offensive is a more real manifestation of her foreign policy than the military conquest of Manchuria.
Japan's dilemma lies in the fact that she can succeed in her plan of industrialization only if she pursues an aggressive foreign policy which must, for various reasons, provoke the resentment of China, Russia, Great Britain, and the United States. All of these Powers are interested in China, Japan's chief source of supply both of materials and markets, and Great Britain is vitally affected also by Japan's invasion of other trade markets. But, just as Japan allowed no abatement of her activities in Manchuria as a result of the League of Nations criticism, her present trade drive continues in spite of tariff and quota reprisals laid down by other countries. Japan believes that people will inevitably tend to buy in the cheapest market.
No government faced with this problem could long avoid the enunciation of a foreign policy designed to meet the requirements of the situation. It is apparent, for example, that in China Japanese foreign policy must find its test, that Japan has a greater interest in seeing peace and order prevail in China than has any other state. Not only does she have direct investments in China exceeding a billion and a quarter dollars, but her dependence upon China as a market and source of supplies increases yearly. Japan's trade with China constitutes 24 percent of her total foreign trade (as compared with 3½ percent in the case of the United States and 1.6 percent in the case of Great Britain). It has been pointed out that for the past sixty years every phase of Japan's intellectual and moral evolution has impelled her to turn away from China. But now economic forces are reuniting her more closely than ever to the continent.
In the light of these considerations, the "special position" which Japan claims for herself in the Far East, a claim which is frankly set forth in almost every declaration of Japanese foreign policy made during the past three years, is at least an understandable matter. That special position is the total of Japan's exceptional treaty rights in China, plus the natural consequences of her geographical position, now rendered more vital by the existence of a pressing population problem the solution of which has been both necessitated and resented by the Western World. The Foreign Minister of Japan has recently declared that his government "has serious responsibilities for the maintenance of peace in Asia, has a firm resolve in that regard," and that his country sincerely hopes for the political and economic rehabilitation of China.
From this claim to primacy of interest in Far Eastern questions and events flows also a claim to naval armaments equal in strength to those of other Great Powers. The interests of these, the Japanese say, are no more extensive than those of Japan. A prominent Japanese writer has asked us to imagine Mexico magnified 2½ times in area and 20 times in population, and the United States diminished in area by 90 percent and in population by 20 percent, stripped also of the surplus part of its abundant natural resources and yearly more crowded for room -- then, he says, we will have a vivid image of Japan's outlook on China.
Japan's foreign policy may ultimately fail of its objective, but it is nevertheless a realistic policy, based on something more fundamental than a mere militarist concoction. Nor can we assume that a change in government will change the situation, for the policy here outlined seems to offer the only lasting solution. Japan sees herself as contiguous to the two greatest and most restless nations of the world, and yet day by day more dependent economically and strategically on the one of them which is directly subject to the disrupting influence of the other. Her apprehensions may be exaggerated; but they are the mainsprings of her present active policy, and that policy deserves more effort at understanding than is shown when it is dismissed as mere military madness.