Gregory Bienstock 1939

Russia and Japan in the Pacific

Source: The Nineteenth Century and After, April 1939. Scanned and prepared for the Marxist Internet Archive by Paul Flewers.

In these days when all that is most changeful, evanescent and self-destructive in history thrusts itself more and more upon the mind, it may perhaps be of value to remember that the fabric of this world is woven not alone by chance but also by necessity. The noise of the European conflict is today so deafening, the vibration of the telegraph wires so shrill, that it is certainly none too easy to catch beneath all the confusion of sounds the rhythm of world history. Half a century ago this was much easier. At that time two Anglo-Saxon statesmen had very clearly realised the significance of Asiatic policy in world events. ‘He who understands China’, said John Hay in 1890, ‘holds in his hand the key to international politics in the next five hundred years.’ And about the same time George N Curzon, then a young member of the Lower House, pointed out that:

... the future of Great Britain... will be decided not in Europe, not even upon the seas and oceans which are swept by her flag, or in the Greater Britain that has been called into existence by her offspring, but in the continent whence our emigrant stock first came, and to which as conquerors their descendants have returned.

There are obvious things which tend to be overlooked simply because of their obviousness. The relatively peaceful development of the world in the century between the Napoleonic wars and 1914 was based on the naval supremacy of Britain, a fact which was accepted by all as a matter of course. After the World War, world equilibrium, in other words the, to a certain extent, peaceful and continuous development of our planet, rested on the fact of the silently acknowledged condominion of the two Anglo-Saxon world powers over the seas. It is Anglo-Saxon naval supremacy which is now questioned in the Far East.

Relations between Europe and Asia in the course of centuries took the form of thrust and counter-thrust, of mutual interpenetration, of cultural cooperation and of sanguinary conflict. Even in the times of Genghiz Khan and Tamerlane, from the thirteenth to the sixteenth century of our era, and up to the time of the last Turkish wars in the seventeenth century, it had been by no means decided whether Asia should dominate Europe or whether the great Motherland should be conquered by its European peninsula. The decisive factor in the issue of this struggle was the fact that by the sixteenth century Europe had achieved the conquest of the seas.

Asiatic conquerors have been essentially bound to the land. As Gibbon, for example, remarks about Tamerlane:

Asia was in the hand of Timour: his armies were invincible, his ambition was boundless... He touched the utmost verge of the land; but an insuperable, though narrow, sea rolled between the two continents of Europe and Asia, and the lord of so many thomans, or myriads, of horse was not master of a single galley.

It was, however, not possible to conquer even Asia by means of a frontal land attack. The circumnavigation of the African Continent and the subsequent advance of the Europeans into the sphere of the Indian Ocean, and later of the Pacific, represent a large-scale flanking manoeuvre. The colonial empires founded by the Portuguese, Dutch and British are Ocean Empires, created from the sea. The existence of these empires rests today upon one hypothesis – Anglo-Saxon naval supremacy.

In the last decades of the nineteenth century, however, the white colonial powers were confronted by an entirely new phenomenon. A thalassocracy of purely Asiatic origin arose in the Pacific, and became at the same time the centre of an opposition colonisation’ ('Gegen-Kolonisation’) of the first rank. A hundred and fifty years after Russia, Japan accepted European civilisation in order to beat Europe at her own game. For the first time for 300 years an Asiatic power once more set out to achieve world conquest.

Japan, like every thalassocracy, sought to influence the neighbouring continent, and here the Island Kingdom came up against two Great Powers – China and Russia. The substance of modern Japan’s foreign policy consists essentially of the adjustment of relations with these two continental opponents. But this foreign policy, although no doubt displaying certain ‘amphibian’ characteristics, has as its goal, in accordance with tradition, the actual domination of the East Asiatic Continent.

To the Occident, which came into close contact with Japan for the first time in the middle of the nineteenth century, everything that took place in the following eighty years, the whole mighty uprising to the position of a world power, appeared as an example of the economic, social, cultural and political transformation brought about by European-American capitalism in the backward Orient. In this connection, however, it remains inexplicable that while Japan’s reaction to Occidental capitalism was the development of power on a vast scale, the other two Asiatic kingdoms, China and Korea, through contact with the same capitalism, have declined and forfeited all or part of their independence. It must be assumed that the Japanese have brought out of their long history into modern times a certain mental attitude which has made possible their unique success.

‘To be widely open on the one hand to outside impressions, and on the other to turn them to good account in the safe shelter of a closed personality’ – it is thus that Friedrich Ratzel characterises one of the historical advantages of the Island State. In the course of their thousand years’ history the Japanese have succeeded in absorbing various foreign ideas and forms of organisation, have tested them and skilfully tried out one against the other. Statesmen of imposing pattern have appeared at decisive turning points of Japanese history, men who have not been afraid to oppose the passive resistance of the masses, and, despising the old, deep-rooted prejudices, have led the state into new paths.

The astounding elasticity and adaptability of the Japanese, their capacity for absorbing outside ideas while at the same time preserving their own personality, these traits in the national character, which explain Japan’s remarkable success, are the result of the history of this island people. The Japanese, racially and culturally, are a mixed people. Malays of the South Seas, Altaic Mongols, Caucasian Ainus, colonised Japan in prehistoric times and helped to build up the Japanese national type. Still more heterogeneous are the influences which have shaped Japanese culture. Chinese Confucianism, Indian Buddhism, Catholicism of the Jesuitical type, have formed and influenced Japanese life in the course of the centuries. As, therefore, in the middle of the nineteenth century Japan adopted European civilisation, she had already had considerable experience in assimilating foreign influences.

Tension in two directions – continental and oceanic – has always defined Japan’s attitude to world politics. The influence of the Continent on the Island Kingdom has not been merely cultural: in the thirteenth century the Mongol Chinese dynasty attempted to extend their dominion to the Japanese islands. Decisive factors in the failure of this grandiose campaign were, first, the breakdown in the unaccustomed conditions of the ‘amphibian’ warfare, of the military technique of the Mongol cavalry, planned for land warfare, and, secondly, the unexpected toughness of the Japanese resistance. The invasion of the Island Kingdom by the Continent was thus finished once and for all. Three hundred years later came Japan’s attack on the Continent. In the meantime, however, the former’s political horizon had been greatly enlarged. In 1542 the Islands for the first time saw ‘Southern barbarians’ in their harbours: the Portuguese landed on the Japanese islands.

The sixteenth century is, generally speaking, the epoch in which Japan’s political energy reached its first culminating point. In this period the Japanese first appeared as an oceangoing people, as pirates and traders, and attempted, using the southern island Kiushu as base, to obtain a footing in the whole of the Western Pacific. This was the first foreign political appearance of the Satsuma Clan. The Malakka Peninsula represents the most southerly point of the oceanic advance of the Satsuma people. Here, however, the Japanese sailors already came against the Europeans advancing from the west (the Portuguese Indian traveller, Albuquerque, in 1511).

The elasticity of the Island Kingdom’s foreign policy at this time can be judged from the ocean-encompassing plans of the Japanese statesmen of the period. On the one hand the attempt was made to extend Japanese trade to Mexico in the East Pacific where Spain had already established a sphere of influence. The South Japanese embassy to the Pope (Hazekura Tsunenaga), an attempt to establish friendly relations with the Occident, above all with Spain and Portugal, also falls into this period. On the other hand, Japan at this time was straining every nerve to subdue the Chinese-Korean Continent (Hideyoshi, 1536-1598). This tension between ocean and continent in the sixteenth century contains the kernel of the whole future foreign policy of the Island State even to the present day.

Japan has twice adopted European arms technique in order to turn it against China. In 1542 occurred the first importation of Portuguese firearms into Japan. Fifty years later, in 1592, the Japanese troops in their continental campaigns were already equipped both with European firearms and those manufactured at home from European models. Three hundred years later the same process was repeated. In 1853, after a long interruption, Japan again came into contact with European arms technique, and with this same technique just forty years later succeeded in overwhelming China.

For Hideyoshi the conquest of China and Korea was in line with ancient tradition: already in the seventh century Japan made an unsuccessful effort to establish herself in South Korea. After the repulsion of the Mongol Chinese Emperor Kublai Khan’s attack on Japan at the end of the thirteenth century, the plan for a counter-attack on the Continent at once emerged. This plan, however, could not be carried out owing to the incessant feudal disputes in which Japan was engaged for forty years after the last Mongol invasion. It was only after Hideyoshi succeeded, in the second half of the sixteenth century, in settling the feudal wars that he could once more turn his attention to the conquest of China and Korea.

For Hideyoshi, however, the subduing of China and Korea was only a stage. His aim was the conquest of the whole of the Indo-Pacific area. Apart from the Far East, India, the East Indies and Persia were to fall to the Japanese conquerors. The capital of this pan-Asiatic kingdom was to be Peking. Hideyoshi may be regarded as the spiritual father of Giichi Tanaka (1863-1929) whose famous Testament of 1927 repeats more or less accurately this programme of Japanese imperialism.

The Seven Years War (1591-98) waged by Hideyoshi against China and Korea ended with a disaster in which the Sino-Korean fleet defeated the Japanese armada in the Yellow Sea. Naval supremacy is as necessary to continental domination in the Far East as elsewhere.

Japan at that time, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, escaped the fate of India because Spain, the world power which might have threatened her, then suffered defeat at the hands of England and France. Philip II’s Armada was destroyed in 1588; nine years later the Chinese general Li Yu-sung defeated the Japanese fleet. Shortly afterwards began the Thirty Years’ War in which the energies of all European powers were fully engaged. The colonial wars of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries took place in the Indian and Atlantic Oceans, the role of the Western Pacific being of little or no importance in this connection. Japan therefore remained in these centuries outside the circle of European world policy, and was able undisturbed to devote herself to the experiment of self-consolidation and political and economic ‘autarky’.

The epoch of seclusion (1637-1853) which covers seven generations, is the time of the final formation of the Japanese national character. It was ushered in by vast anti-ideological struggles: both ideologies which claimed domination were eventually discarded. Political Buddhism first received a death blow, in dealing which the government claimed the support of Christianity, which was already exerting a powerful influence upon the masses. In its turn, however, Christianity was suppressed, foreigners thrown out of the country, and all communication with the outside world cut off. The sense of national disappointment at the failure of Hideyoshi’s pan-Asiatic plans produced in a hypersensitive nation the tendency to self-examination and self-consciousness. Thus are explained the turning against foreign ideologies and in general the inclination to self-limitation. The outward manifestations of life were toned down, increase of population checked by abortion and child murder. The apparatus of a centralised bureaucracy was planted on a feudal social order, spiritual life was dominated by a scholasticism imported from China which attained in Japan its highest florescence towards the end of the eighteenth century. In the epoch which for the West was the period of discovery and invention, of the first great victories over Nature, of English empirical philosophy and French encyclopaedism, Japan remained in the fetters of scholasticism. But feudalism and scholasticism were a good school for the Japanese spirit as they had formerly been for that of Europe.

Japan’s ‘awakening’, or rather a powerful rousing by American cannon in the year 1853, forced the acceptance of European-American civilisation. But this acceptance was simply used as a stick with which to beat Europe. Hideyoshi’s pan-Asiatic programme once more came to the front. Japan now began where Hideyoshi left off, and made up for the defeat of 1597 by a blow at the Chinese ‘hereditary foe’ in 1894-95. It turned out, however, that in these two and a half centuries the world situation had fundamentally altered: between the victorious Island Kingdom and defenceless China stood Russia, backed by France and Germany. Japan was thus robbed of the fruits of her victory over China.

The advance of the Island Kingdom towards the Continent, the pan-Asiatic doctrine of Hideyoshi, was countered, as 250 years before, by a Eurasiatic programme. The Russians appeared as the political heirs of the Mongols.

The Mongol Empire, founded in the thirteenth century by Genghiz Khan and his successors, included on its extreme west the Russian principalities; on its extreme east this Empire sought to incorporate the Japanese islands. In the fifteenth century the Russian principalities, under the leadership of Moscow, threw off the Mongol yoke; in direct connection with this the Russian counter-offensive began right across the whole Eurasian Continent from the Volga to the Pacific. Moscow gathered under her overlordship the northern part of the decaying Mongol Empire. In the middle of the sixteenth century the Russian conquerors marched across the Ural mountains; a century later the coasts of the Pacific had already been reached by Russian adventurers and traders.

In the middle of the nineteenth century (1858-60), China, greatly weakened by the war against England and France, was forced to relinquish the Amur Province and the coastal territory to Russia. The Russians, however, were no more prepared than their Mongol predecessors to be satisfied with conquests on the Asiatic Continent. At the end of the eighteenth and the first thirty years of the nineteenth centuries Russian sailors and adventurers displayed exceptional activity in the north and south of the Western Pacific. In 1798 the Russo-American Company on the lines of the English and Dutch Colonial Companies was formed, and proceeded to annex and administer Alaska in the name of the Russian Empire. Russian explorers appeared on the Marshall and Caroline Islands. In 1812 Russian agencies were started in California which at that time belonged to Spain; in 1815 an attempt was made to bring the Hawaiian Islands under a Russian protectorate. As late as 1821 the Czar Alexander I raised a claim to the Oregon province which lay like a wedge between British and American spheres of influence. When, in the summer of 1823, George Canning made to the American Ambassador, Richard Rush, the proposals for common diplomatic action which led soon afterwards to the formulation of the Monroe Doctrine, it was this Russian offensive in the Pacific, too, which was foremost in his mind.

Russia’s oceanic ambitions were far-reaching: the Bering Sea was to become a Russian inland sea; in 1825 Russia and Spain made an agreement on the division of their spheres of influence in California. This, however, proved to be the summit of Russia’s achievements in the oceanic sphere. The proclamation of the Monroe Doctrine was the first Anglo-Saxon counter-stroke with the aim of finally pushing Russia off the American Continent. With the sale of Alaska in 1867 the dream of a Pacific ocean kingdom under Russian domination faded once and for all. It is true that seven years earlier Vladivostok – ‘Stronghold of the East’ – had been built on the coast of the Sea of Japan. The geographical position, however, of this sea fortress proves that Russia had given up extensive oceanic ambitions: Vladivostok was in no sense planned as a point of departure for oceanic conquests, but rather as a base for continental development and defence against possible attack from the sea.

Russian world policy unfolded itself along a strategically powerful line from the Carpathians to the Great Hingan Range (Manchuria), from the Black Sea to the Pacific. Behind this line lie the Eurasian steppes, and the immanent tendency of Mongolo-Russian ‘steppe-imperialism’ is to seek an outlet in a southerly direction towards the ‘warm waters’ – the Mediterranean, the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Russia’s world political energies have in the course of centuries been concentrated now on one, now on another section of this colossal curve. Russian advance towards the Black Sea was paralysed by the British counter-attack between 1853 (Crimean War) and 1878 (Congress of Berlin). The Central Asiatic expansion of the Czarist Empire which between 1860 and 1885 reached its most successful period, was also halted by British counter-activity in Afghanistan and Baluchistan. In 1885 border conflicts between Russia and Afghanistan nearly ended in a war between Russia and England.

In the 1890s the Russian offensive on the shores of the Pacific, brought to a halt between 1860 and 1870, was renewed. Checked on both the other sectors of her world political arc, in the west on the Black Sea, and in the centre in Central Asia, she turned her attention to the Pacific sector. Here, however, the Czarist Empire came into conflict with Japan, substantially supported by Anglo-American cooperation.

The conflict between Russia and Japan in the Pacific was a typical power conflict, economic difficulties between the two powers being merely of secondary importance. The Japanese as well as the Russians had proved indifferent colonisers on the coasts of the Northern Pacific. The real colonisers had been the Chinese, whose settlement of the North Pacific territories had, however, been checked by political considerations. From a purely political point of view both Moscow and Tokyo had favoured grandiose projects for colonising the North Pacific territories with, respectively, Russian and Japanese settlers. Nothing came of these plans, however, owing lack of colonising energy in the settlers themselves.

The Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05 left Japan an Asiatic Great Power, and gave her dominion over Southern Manchuria and Korea. The victory of Japan was only made possible by Anglo-Saxon support, chiefly that of England (the Anglo-Japanese Alliance, 1902). After this time, however, a shifting in the direction of Japanese foreign policy is noticeable: from an attitude of acute opposition to Russia, covered by an alliance with the strongest ocean power, Tokyo’s policy veered gradually towards an understanding with Russia, while attachment to the Anglo-Saxon powers was loosened. Russia and Japan approached each other on a programme of the partition of China. Agreements on the division of spheres of influence in North China were made no less than four times – in 1907, 1910, 1911 and 1916. In 1910 a perfectly definite Russo-Japanese front was formed against the American attempt to make Manchuria a buffer state under American control (Taft-Knox proposals). The Russo-Japanese approach reached its closest point during the World War, in the last year of Czarism, with the Sazonov-Motono Agreement of 3 July 1916, which was clearly directed against America. In the same year Berlin, as well as Tokyo, played with the idea of a separate peace and a threefold Russo-Germano-Japanese entente.

During the World War and in 1919-20 Japanese expansion in the Far East reached its highest point. China and Russia were completely paralysed, the whole Russian Far Eastern possessions as far as Lake Baikal were occupied by Japan. Only the intervention of England and America (Washington, 1922) forced Japan to evacuate the occupied positions. A new Japanese approach to Russia, at this time similarly isolated, became possible in 1925 with the Karakhan-Yoshizava Agreement. The problem of China, however, then as now, stood between Tokyo and Moscow. The unification of China was carried out between 1923 and 1926 with Russian help, and this unification was directed not only against the Western powers but against Japan. Still, even in 1926 the tendency to an approach of Russia and Japan was clearly noticeable, and even the old idea of a triple entente between Japan, Russia and Germany seemed to be coming to fruition. The close relations between Berlin and Moscow as shown in the Berlin Treaty of 1926, could only be favourable to the ‘Eurasian Axis’ (Berlin – Moscow – Tokyo).

With the advent to power of Baron Giichi Tanaka in the summer of 1927, the pan-Asiatic tendency once more asserted itself, combined first with an attempt at an approach to England, but after 1931 with gradual dissociation from all connection with the Anglo-Saxon powers. This ‘totalitarian’ continental policy beginning with the occupation of Manchuria presupposed a more or less complete ‘aloofness’ on the part of England and America towards any Western Pacific policy. Tokyo assumed this Anglo-Saxon aloofness as a matter of course, but reckoned equally as a matter of course with Russian ‘presence’ ('presenza’ – Italian) in the Western Pacific.

The fate of Asia will in all probability be decided by Asiatic power factors. The intervention of the Anglo-Saxon powers, if it ever comes, can be expected only at a much later stage, when the combinations of power in the Western Pacific will be more clearly discernible. The alternatives which there remain to be settled are the old ones, those which were set by Kublai Khan in the thirteenth, and Hideyoshi in the sixteenth centuries: Eurasia or Panasia. The further the Chinese armies are pushed to the West and cut off from all access to the sea, the more will they be thrown back on help from Russia and the more probable will become a close political and military cooperation between Moscow and the government of Marshal Chiang.

The incorporation of China in the Japanese sphere of power will ruin Russia’s position as an Asiatic Great Power. And Russia today, in view on the one hand of the industrialisation of the huge district between the Ural and Altai Mountains and on the other of the actual incorporation of Chinese East Turkestan and Outer Mongolia (together nearly 1,500,000 square miles) feels much more an Asiatic power than she did twenty years ago. A Sino-Russian alliance, the victory of which would realise the old Eurasian Mongolian Empire of Genghiz Khan and Kublai Khan, is therefore within the bounds of possibility.

The Pan-Asiatic solution, as envisaged by Hideyoshi and Tanaka, could only be achieved by the overthrow of Russia and her destruction as an Asiatic power. The incorporation of Eastern Turkestan and Outer Mongolia in the Japanese sphere of control would threaten Russian domination in South Siberia and Central Asia. There is, however, another possibility, namely the partition of China between Japan and Russia. As things are today this would mean a complete elimination of Russia from the Pacific Coast and thus the conversion of the Sea of Japan into a Japanese inland sea, the relinquishment of the coast territories and possibly also the Amur province to Japan, Russia, however, retaining her lordship over the Mongolian-Turkestan provinces. This would, according to past experience, lead to a stronger pressure of Russia in Central Asia and in the direction of the Indian Ocean.