Courtesy Reuters

British Policy in the Far East

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

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