THE title of this article suggests that in face of a grave international problem Britain has an attitude that is both positive and clearly defined. I must state at the outset that the facts do not warrant any such interpretation. A British policy undoubtedly exists, so far as it affects the maintenance of certain principles of action; but action itself -- as and when it can be taken -- is still today, as it has been for the past twenty years, conditioned by the trend of world events which often are entirely outside British control. Preoccupation with developments nearest home in Europe is inevitable, and distant events necessarily take second place. A statement made at the unofficial Conference on British Commonwealth Relations at Sydney in 1938 only expressed the obvious: "No threat to British Far Eastern interests, however grave, can ever deflect British statesmanship from what must inevitably be its major concern, namely, the security of the British Isles, and of the sea communications upon which Great Britain depends for her supplies of foodstuffs and raw materials."[i] The objective of succeeding British administrations has been to preserve the status quo as far as possible while letting the situation steadily deteriorate. Only when driven into a corner where action of some sort became obligatory did they show any initiative, and even then they adopted mere temporary expedients. They entered treaties, partly in trust, but also partly for their calming effect on the public mind and for their value in postponing the inevitable.

In short, Britain's alternating attitude of compromise and decision is no more graphically illustrated than by her Far Eastern policy. After 1902 the Anglo-Japanese Alliance was regarded as the instrument most likely to furnish stability and peace in the Orient. However, two disturbing factors emerged to challenge this assumption: the Alliance became anathema to the people and Government of the United States, friendship with whom was a cardinal principle underlying British foreign policy; and the continental ambitions of Japan, plainly revealed in 1915 when she presented her infamous Twenty-One Demands on China, were in direct conflict with British aims. What finally decided Britain to drop the Alliance was the growing tension between Japan and the United States, together with Canada's strong opposition to its renewal. The British delegates to the Conference of Washington in 1922 therefore abandoned the twenty-year-old pact in favor of a series of international agreements that on paper at any rate safeguarded Britain's main interests in the Far East. China's integrity, the Open Door and equal opportunity were guaranteed by the Nine Power Treaty; while the Pacific status quo was secured under the terms of the Four Power Pact and the Naval Limitation Treaty. Even so, the British Government did not feel that these undertakings in themselves provided a sufficient margin of safety, and for the supplementary protection of its Pacific possessions and communications it ordered the construction of the powerful naval and air base at Singapore recommended by Lord Jellicoe in 1920.

The Washington Treaties necessarily had an adverse effect on Anglo-Japanese relations. Although Japan had reluctantly acquiesced in the lapse of the Alliance, she considered that she had been jettisoned by her old ally; while the provision of an inferior ratio in the naval agreements, plus the shadow of the Singapore Base, created an abiding bitterness. Nor did the Nine Power Treaty have the desired effect of assuring in China a stable, peaceful nation well disposed towards Great Britain. On the contrary, the rise of Chinese nationalism, with its demand for the abolition of the so-called "unequal treaties," led not only to the continuation of civil strife but to violent anti-British agitation in Canton, Shanghai, Hankow and other cities. This was the more serious since Japan, under the guidance of Foreign Minister Shidehara, stood aloof; while Japanese merchants not unnaturally viewed the anti-British boycott as a heaven-sent opportunity to "muscle in."

The situation, so far as concerned China, was relieved by Britain's recognition of the Kuomintang (National) Government at Nanking, by her return of the British Concessions at Hankow and Kiukiang, and by other conciliatory measures. Nor did the British Government consider that its relations with Japan were so strained that time, tact, and goodwill could not improve them. As it turned out, the hope for better relations with Japan was frustrated precisely because of Britain's new China policy. The demand of the Kuomintang -- whose xenophobia was now directed against Japan for the retrocession of the Kwantung Leased Territory, and the increased irritation caused by the stiffening of the Chinese attitude in Manchuria, were in Japanese eyes the direct result of the British Government's having "bowed down" to the Chinese in the case of Hankow. Nevertheless, following Japan's previous example, Britain was careful not to be drawn into the quarrel, and she kept out of it until the Japanese Army marched into Manchuria in September 1931, and China appealed to the League of Nations.

This Japanese coup constituted a direct challenge to the efficacy of the League Covenant, the Nine Power Treaty and the Kellogg Pact, to all of which Japan was a signatory. Moreover, it automatically placed on trial the whole system of collective security which the League states had been endeavoring to build up ever since the close of the Great War. There was a sharp division of opinion in the United Kingdom as to what should be Britain's policy in the crisis. The "Imperialists," composed of an influential section of the Conservative Party which had just been returned to power, showed an instinctive sympathy with Japan. Business interests engaged in the China trade, and naval and military circles, in general supported them. The Liberal-Labor element in the country sided with China, and looked to the League to see justice done.

The self-governing Dominions might have been expected, at least in the case of New Zealand and Australia with their traditional dread of "the Yellow Peril," to throw their influence into the scale of upholding collective security. But at that time they were far more concerned with the economic depression; and the only interest they exhibited in the Japanese invasion was to evince relief that China was the victim rather than themselves, and to express the naïve belief that Japan would emerge from her venture either satiated or exhausted. Canada and South Africa, however, joined in the general denunciation of Japan's action at the special session of the League Assembly in March 1932.

In the end the voice that prevailed in British policy was again the voice of expediency coupled with characteristically optimistic idealism. "Not one of us would be willing to contemplate a future world from which the active influence of the League was eliminated," Sir John Simon, Foreign Secretary, told the Assembly on March 7, 1932. Four days later he proposed that the Assembly adopt the "non-recognition of the fruits of aggression" resolution contained in the "Stimson Note" -- the only really constructive act performed by that body during the crisis. In the House of Commons on March 22 Sir John stated that British policy was based on carrying out the purposes of the League and on coöperation with other Powers. But, he added, in supporting the League one should "keep the coercive and the mediatory functions of the League distinct." Referring to the Sino-Japanese conflict, he continued: "This has been proved to be a case in which the effective action of the League is best applied by mediatory and conciliatory action." His concluding remarks contained the amazing confession: ". . . I am very happy to think that British policy today, whatever may be its shortcomings and its imperfections, at any rate is a policy which has kept us on terms of perfectly friendly relations both with China and Japan."

On December 7, after listening to Sir John's observations regarding the Lytton Report, Mr. Yosuke Matsuoka, the Japanese delegate, reportedly remarked that Sir John Simon had said in half an hour, in a few well-chosen phrases, what he -- Mr. Matsuoka -- had been trying to say in his bad English for the last ten days.[ii] Finally on February 27, 1933, three days after the League Assembly had adopted a report based on the findings of the Lytton Commission, and the Japanese delegation had walked out of the Assembly, the Foreign Secretary informed the House of Commons that "in no circumstances will this Government authorize this country to be a party to the struggle" -- a declaration which caused the Labor opposition to inquire whether that did not mean "the abrogation of Article XVI of the Covenant." A month later Japan gave notice of her withdrawal from the League.

It was now seen clearly that for collective security purposes the League Covenant as a coercive instrument was dead. But none of the League members would give it decent burial. From the day that China had lodged her appeal, the influence of Great Britain had been paramount at the Council table, and she must bear the principal blame for the fact that subterfuges and delays of all descriptions were permitted until Japan was able to present the League with a fait accompli -- "Manchukuo." American overtures for coöperative international action to vindicate the collective security system were treated with apparent reserve. The Stimson Note of January 7, 1932, which exerted the first positive pressure on Japan, met with a rebuff from the British Foreign Office, a rebuff that was underlined in a Times editorial that might well have been written by the Japanese spokesman at Geneva.[iii] Sir John Pratt, who was closely associated with Sir John Simon at the Foreign Office at the time, has since explained away the communiqué in question as a "slip"; but the impression it created was, as he observes, " a real obstacle in Anglo-American relations."[iv]

On the other hand, a careful investigation conducted in Washington as well as London has convinced the writer that the United States was not at any point willing to pledge her support to a policy of sanctions or other punitive measures which the League might agree to adopt. That such measures in this case would have been ineffective without American coöperation should be self-evident. Since, therefore, it was the view of the British Government that coercive action against Japan entailed risk of war -- a prize example of Japanese bluff -- and that only the association of the United States could make the British strategic position tenable in such an eventuality, the refusal to bring Japan to book does not lie entirely on one side of the Atlantic. It may be suggested, though it cannot be confirmed, that if the League had lived up to its commitments American public opinion would have insisted on parallel action. I for my part believe it.

Where British policy seems deserving of censure is in failing to recognize that ever since the United States stepped out of the picture in 1920 the Covenant was impotent to prevent aggression by a major signatory Power, and in consistently encouraging the smaller and less powerful signatories to have confidence in a worthless guarantee. But Britain had hoped against hope for "peace in our time" and preferred the sound of brave words to a state of official international anarchy. The very ring of the Covenant's text was as the ring of Magna Charta, immunizing a would-be aggressor as by one of Merlin's spells, and offering a talismanic protection of liberty. Now plainly the spell was broken and the talisman had failed, and British policy had to adjust itself accordingly. This meant that though the League Covenant remained, and was cautiously and within circumscribed limits applied, Britain's policy was her own, even though wrapped up in League trappings. It was still, however, a policy of appeasement and temporizing, though infinitely more realistic.

As a consequence, when Japan commenced large-scale hostilities in China in 1937, and China a second time appealed to the League, Britain, though again favoring friendly mediation, was more firmly than ever opposed to any form of coercive action. On this occasion Britain laid the greatest possible stress on the need for Anglo-American coöperation, and the League definitely took second place. "In our view," said Mr. Chamberlain at the Guildhall on November 9, "an essential factor for success in any endeavor to bring about a settlement is the coöperation of the United States." To obtain this Mr. Eden had already told Parliament that he was ready to travel "not only from Geneva to Brussels, but from Melbourne to Alaska." The Government, he said, was prepared to "go as far as the United States, in full accord with them, not rushing in front but not being left behind."[v]

This eagerness to work with the United States was only partly explained by the increased gravity of the situation in the Far East and the belated recognition that this could be handled successfully only by joint or parallel action of the English-speaking nations. It was no doubt due in equal measure to the expanding influence of the Berlin-Rome-Tokyo Axis and its implied threat to the liberties of Britain and the other "peace-loving nations" referred to by President Roosevelt in his dynamic denunciation of "the present reign of terror and international lawlessness" in his Chicago speech of October 5. His words at first kindled high hopes that concerted action by the democratic Powers might follow. But when it was seen that American public opinion, still strongly isolationist, was much opposed to such a course, it was speedily realized that active international intervention was out of the question. The Brussels Conference opened with this knowledge and in the circumstances was a complete waste of time.

This further failure led the British Government to take an unequivocal stand the next time the Opposition raised the question of upholding the rule of law in the Far East. In the House of Commons on December 21 Mr. Eden said: "If hon. Members opposite are advocating sanctions . . . I would remind them that there are two possible forms of sanctions -- the ineffective, which are not worth putting on, and the effective, which means the risk, if not the certainty, of war. I say deliberately that nobody could contemplate any action of that kind in the Far East unless they are convinced that they have overwhelming force to back their policy. Do right hon. Gentlemen opposite really think that the League of Nations today, with only two great naval Powers in it, ourselves and France, have got that overwhelming force? It must be perfectly clear to everyone that that overwhelming force does not exist."

There was a risk of another kind which the British Government with its appeasement policy was forced to accept -- the loss of prestige, and with it the power to mitigate Japanese aggressive action. Anglo-Japanese relations were subject to increasing strain since the British assistance given to China in order to aid her reconstruction conflicted directly with Japan's determination to dominate that country.

Britain has been continually presented as Japan's real enemy, not China. The Japanese have pointed to the flow of foreign munitions and other war supplies through the free port of Hong Kong (up to the fall of Canton in October 1938) as convincing proof of this allegation -- even though the Japanese Government was well aware that only a very small percentage of such material was of British origin. Another source of friction arose from the fact that the Japanese Army frequently found its progress hindered by foreign rights and interests, mainly British, and had hence become convinced that it could not possibly establish its "New Order in East Asia" unless and until these had been liquidated. The Army therefore insisted that Japan's policy be directed towards undermining British influence. In Nippon itself a vindictive anti-British drive was carried on, while in China there was a succession of incidents and even direct attacks on British vested interests. Among these may be listed the murderous assault on the British Ambassador, Sir Hughe Knatchbull-Hugessen; the blatant bombings of British warships, merchantmen, missions and other property; the closure of the Yangtze and Pearl Rivers to British shipping; interference with the commercial life and municipal administrations in "occupied" territory, including the Shanghai International Settlement and the foreign Concession at Kulangsu; and the blockade of the British Concession at Tientsin, where British nationals were stripped by Japanese soldiers before crowds of Chinese.

To these "intolerable insults," to quote the British Prime Minister, a once proud Britain made but verbal protest. With Hitler on the rampage in Europe and a belated rearmament program on her hands -- including the modernization and strengthening of her Far Eastern defenses -- Britain was very much "on the spot." A courageous and positive policy might still have told on the impressionable Japanese; but the Government was committed to a policy of appeasement and day-to-day decision. Mr. Chamberlain, having stated in November 1938 that the Government attitude was based on a desire for friendly relations with both sides, gave in to the Japanese on relatively minor issues rather than risk a showdown -- as instanced by the surrender of the four Chinese suspects at Tientsin.

We may not assume, however, that this attitude implied any wavering in Britain's determination to uphold her direct treaty obligations. In this respect she has always regarded herself as honor-bound to an almost quixotic extent. She therefore came down heavily on Premier Prince Konoye's official explanation of Japan's new policy in Far Eastern affairs in the note which the British Ambassador handed to the Japanese Foreign Minister on January 14, 1939, stating expressly: "For their part, His Majesty's Government desire to make it clear that they are not prepared to accept or to recognize changes of the nature indicated, which are brought about by force. They intend to adhere to the principles of the Nine Power Treaty, and cannot agree to the unilateral modification of its terms."[vi] Britain was naturally relieved at the Japanese reaction, and this probably prompted Mr. Chamberlain to say in a much publicized interview with the London representative of the Asahi: "We are not a people who cherish grudges a long time. If Japan shows a readiness to respect Great Britain's reasonable rights and interests in the Far East the British people will always respond."[vii]

Since then, Anglo-Japanese talks of a general nature have been taking place quietly in London and Tokyo. One of the matters under discussion has been the vexed question of the Chinese silver deposits, valued at some fifty million Chinese dollars, in the British and French Concessions at Tientsin. The latest British plan is said to suggest that a sixth of this sum be devoted to Chinese flood relief under the supervision of an international committee and that the remainder should be placed in a neutral bank pending the conclusion of hostilities. Japan is understood to have agreed to the scheme, and the assent of the French and United States Governments, which are automatically informed of every phase of such negotiations, is also believed to have been obtained. China, however, is against the plan, and the recent visit of the British Ambassador to Chungking was probably connected in some way with this issue.

Meanwhile the extent of the rapprochement between Russia and Japan is being watched by Britain with anxiety. So far as is known this consists only of an agreement to end the fighting on the Outer Mongolia-Manchukuo frontier and to continue the old fishery compact for another year. But the Japanese have also opened trade talks in Moscow, and should these deal with wider issues -- and they may -- British interests in the Far East would almost certainly be affected. An additional motive for Russia seeking to woo Tokyo at this time is the relatively long-drawn-out Russian campaign in Finland. The pro-Japanese group in Britain sees in this situation an urgent reason why Britain should seek to come to terms with Tokyo before the Russians do. Still another thought which inspires the "imperialists" is their desire to obtain Japan as a potential ally against Russia. During a recent lecture tour in England, however, the writer found a large body of public opinion solidly against coming to any agreement with Japan until she had ceased her aggression in China.

To conclude, then, Britain's policy in the Far East today is still based fundamentally on the principles embodied in the Nine Power Treaty. Britain is as anxious as ever to see an independent and strong China; but she is equally anxious not to break off amicable relations with Japan. The extent to which she gives further direct assistance to the Chinese Government will therefore depend on how this can be done without provoking active Japanese resentment. Britain continues to stand firmly by her basic treaty rights in China, but is willing to negotiate on minor adjustments where discretion recommends such a course. And perhaps most important, Britain will seek in every way posssible to coöperate with France and the United States. The impotence of Western diplomacy without American support has been proved up to the hilt. It is not too much to say that the very fate of the Western Pacific is bound up in the decisions which the American Government takes in the weeks ahead.

[i] H. V. Hodson (Ed.), "The British Commonwealth and The Future." New York: Oxford University Press, 1939, p. 39.

[ii] Manchester Guardian, December 8, 1932.

[iii] The Times editorial of January 11, 1932, concluded: "Nor does it seem to be the immediate business of the Foreign Office to defend the 'administrative integrity' of China until that integrity is something more than an ideal."

[iv] Letter from Sir John Pratt, K.B.E., C.M.G., published in The Times of November 30, 1938.

[v] Parliamentary Debates, House of Commons, cccxxviii, 583, 596, November 1, 1937.

[vi] Quoted in The Times, January 16, 1939.

[vii] Ibid., November 3, 1939.

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
  • GERALD SAMSON, Reuter's correspondent in the Far East, recently with the Chinese Army; author of "Warning Lights of Asia"
  • More By Gerald Samson