Washington’s Missing China Strategy
To Counter Beijing, the Biden Administration Needs to Decide What It Wants
BROADLY speaking, there are only two views of the Far Eastern situation. There is the view of those who regard it as completely beyond any peaceful remedy. They are the defeatists. But there are still a few optimists who hold the view that recent changes in the balance of power in the Pacific may yet provide far-sighted and constructive statesmanship with an opportunity of devising some kind of peaceful adjustment. I shall try to state in the following pages the reasons for my being one of these optimistic few.
Many believe that there is no longer any balance of power in the Far East, that there is only the supremacy of one nation -- Japan. They believe that the semblance of international equilibrium and order which obtained during the period of the Washington Treaties (1921-31) was ruthlessly and irrevocably destroyed by the acts of Japan beginning in September 1931. They believe that where one Power is in a position of such absolute preponderance, and where that Power happens to be intoxicated with the successes it has met with in carrying through an apparently irresistible program of militaristic expansion, there cannot be any remedy or modification of the situation without an international war.
From such a major premise only defeatist conclusions can be drawn: either the Powers of Europe and America must acknowledge their helplessness in this situation, and each of them plan to withdraw the commercial and financial interests of its nationals from the Far East in order to avoid a possible conflict; or they must appease the predominant Power by sacrificing all principles of international justice and the sanctity of treaty obligations in order to retain a minimum share in the spoils; or each must go on with its military and naval preparations in anticipation of an inevitable clash in the not-too-distant future.
Such seemed to be the state of mind prevailing at the round table discussions of the Institute of Pacific Relations in which I participated last summer. Shortly after that meeting, a liberal journal of opinion in the United States advocated editorially that all American merchants and firms trading in China should be withdrawn from that country and that the American Government should undertake to compensate their losses out of the money saved from scrapping the American navy. I need not mention the other organs of opinion which advocate creating a big navy and a big air force as the only sort of language which Japan can understand. I do not propose to comment on such views. I only wish to point out that there is this defeatist attitude toward the international situation in the Pacific. To build a big navy without backing it with a constructive policy is defeatism. To advocate the abandonment of the principle of non-recognition -- the only surviving reminder of the sanctity of a set of great and idealistic treaties -- is defeatism. And the mere pious wish to avoid a clash by scrapping the American navy and abandoning a continent of commerce and investment is no less defeatism.
I venture to suggest that this defeatism in all its forms is based upon an erroneous understanding of the present situation in the Pacific area. It is erroneous today to think of that situation as one of Japanese supremacy unmitigated by any changes in the balance of forces. Such changes have been taking place since 1931.
The plain historical truth is this: "Japan's supremacy in the Far East" was a fact in the period of seventeen years from 1914 to 1931; but since 1931 it no longer has been a fact.
It is unnecessary to recount how at the outbreak of the World War in 1914 the semblance of a balance of power which had prevailed since the close of the Russo-Japanese War in 1905 completely broke down. Great Britain, Russia and France were engaged in a life and death struggle in Europe. The Far East was left in the hands of Britain's ally, Japan, who proceeded to wipe out all German possessions and influence on the Chinese coast and in the Pacific Ocean. For seven years, from 1914 to 1921, Japan ruled the Western Pacific almost without a rival. This supremacy was evidenced by Japan's "Twenty-one Demands" on China in 1915. It was still more clearly evidenced at the Peace Conference in 1919 when the victorious Allies, against the nationwide protests of the Chinese people and against a world-wide sentiment for the Wilsonian principle of self-determination, conceded to Japan the right of free disposition of the former German concessions in Shantung.
The Washington Conference was called to readjust the problems of naval disarmament and the Pacific problems left unsolved by the Paris Peace Conference. It had a direct bearing on the Pacific situation in four ways. First, the question of Shantung was amicably settled between China and Japan. Secondly, the eight signatory Powers (other than China) of the Nine-Power Treaty pledged themselves "to respect the sovereignty, the independence, and the territorial and administrative integrity of China; to provide the fullest and most unembarrassed opportunity to China to develop and maintain for herself an effective and stable government; . . . [and] to refrain from taking advantage of conditions in China in order to seek special rights or privileges which would abridge the rights of subjects or citizens of friendly States, and from countenancing action inimical to the security of such States." Thirdly, the Anglo-Japanese Alliance was not renewed and its place was taken by the Four-Power Treaty. Fourthly, the ratio 5-5-3 was adopted for the naval strengths of Great Britain, the United States and Japan, respectively.
While it is true that the Washington Treaties aimed at the establishment of a set of new checks and balances on Japan's preponderate power in the Far East, it is no less true that the supremacy of Japan was never in fact curtailed by the actions taken at Washington. On the contrary, Japanese power in the Pacific was never greater than during those first ten years after the Washington Treaties (1921-1931). The real result of the Conference was to rectify some of the most pressing troubles between China and Japan, remove much of the tension between Japan and the other naval Powers, and thereby secure Japan's preponderate position in the Western Pacific by practically legalizing it.
There is such a thing as power becoming greatest when it is made innocuous. The best example is the supremacy of the United States in the Western Hemisphere. Japan's position in the family of nations was the highest when she abided by the results of the Washington Conference and remained one of the Big Four in the League of Nations. Since she began to abuse that power in 1931, and particularly since she withdrew from the League in 1933, she has not again attained her former heights of power and prestige.
Thus we may say that "the supremacy of Japan in the Far East" was not only true of the period of the World War and the years immediately following its conclusion, but also true of the ten years after the Washington Conference. While the League Covenant and the Washington Treaties and the Pact of Paris prevailed there was no balance of power in the Pacific. There was only a New World Order, or at least the semblance of it, within which Japan was tacitly acknowledged by all as the undisputed leader in the Far East and in the Western Pacific.
But since September 18, 1931, that is to say, since Japan's militarists started their aggressive campaigns in Manchuria, in Shanghai, and in North China -- what a tremendous change has taken place! By those acts of aggression, Japan threw into the discard the whole postwar machinery of peace. Japanese power ran wild. It upset not merely the East, but the entire world. It destroyed that semblance of international order which alone had legalized and tacitly protected Japan's supremacy.
What are the new factors brought forth since 1931 as a result, at least in part, of Japan's violent action?
In the first place, Soviet Russia has come back to the Pacific as a first-rate military Power. At the time of the Washington Conference, she had not yet been recognized by the other Powers. She was neither a participant in the Conference nor a signatory to the Washington Treaties. But since 1931 the Soviet Union has brought to the Far East a huge armed force estimated to include between 300,000 and 500,000 finely trained and well equipped men. She is developing one of the greatest air forces in the world. Since 1931, her submarine and destroyer fleet in the Pacific is reported to have quintupled and the coast guard fleet to have increased elevenfold. In these years she has constructed about 7,000 miles of new railways along the Mongolian and Siberian borders, and 3,000 miles have been double-tracked. And behind all these there has taken place the most remarkable progress in industrialization, not only in European Russia but also in the Soviet Far East.
In other words, Russia has now definitely returned to the Pacific area as a fully armed Power. She comes, too, possessed of new and vast industrial resources. Japan must now reckon with her more than ever as a factor in the Pacific scene.
The second new factor is the rapid rearmament of all the non-Asiatic nations bordering the Pacific or having possessions there. A continuous ring extends from the Aleutian Islands to Singapore and the Dutch East Indies. We read the other day that for the month of July 1936, the Dutch Indies were the heaviest buyers of American ammunition. The construction of the British naval base at Singapore, after being suspended for a time, was vigorously resumed after the fighting at Shanghai early in 1932. This most gigantic naval base in the world is now practically completed. New Zealand and Australia, the two paradises of the Southern Pacific Ocean which had never dreamed of the necessity of arming, are now seriously working out their own schemes of coastal defense. Each is recruiting an enlarged militia, manufacturing its own planes, and laboriously extracting gasoline from coal and shale. Recently when I was in Winnipeg I read in the Free Press that Canada, too, is going to have a new navy. And the United States is constructing new armaments and fortifications from the Philippines to Alaska, and undertaking a heavy naval building program.
This ring of nations newly armed or rearmed must be considered a new factor produced since 1931 by Japan's actions.
Last but not least we must note the rapid rise of the national state of China. The unification of China under the National Government at Nanking is the outcome of Japan's aggression. In the dark shadows of national humiliation, a unified Chinese state is taking form.
During the first two years following Japan's aggression in Manchuria, Japanese spokesmen everywhere declared that China was not an organized modern state and should not be accorded the full rights and privileges which such states enjoy. In the last three years such pleadings have ceased. In their place we constantly hear statements from Japanese militarists to the effect that the Empire of Japan cannot co-exist with Chiang Kai-shek's government. "Shall the Empire surrender to him? Or shall it crush him?" Such were the alternatives stated recently by General Tada. Long before the outside world became aware of it, the shrewd eyes of the Japanese military had begun to see the growth of a nationalistic China and perceived that it would have an increasing power of resistance to external aggression.
This new factor in the Pacific scene may indeed turn out to be the most important of the three which I have enumerated. For, as John Hay knew, an independent and strong China is necessary not only for the maintenance of the Open Door but also for the stability and peace of the Far East. For over thirty years China failed to live up to Hay's expectations. Now she is earnestly endeavoring to qualify herself as one of the stabilizing forces in Asia.
Such are the new factors which now are entering into the balance of forces in the Pacific and changing that balance so that Japan, though she still plays a mighty rôle, is no longer supreme.
Evidently if these new factors are not properly organized they may lead towards a terrible international conflagration. It might begin with a war forced on China by Japan's continued aggression, and gradually it might involve Soviet Russia, Great Britain and ultimately the United States. In the modern world war is as truly "indivisible" as peace. No nation bordering on the Pacific, or interested in its fate, can hope to escape being involved in any major Pacific conflict.
But wise statesmen may also discern in this changing balance of power new possibilities for a peaceful adjustment of the Pacific world. They may now discover a way to create a regional peace machinery which has as participants the United States, the Soviet Union and the British Empire (with all its Pacific members), as well, of course, as Japan and China. What is certain is that the alternative to such a peaceful collective arrangement will be another world conflagration the magnitude and the horror of which will be beyond anything we now envisage in the boldest stretch of our imagination.