The Asian Century 5 17 July 2019.

In Asian history, China had always ranked vastly higher than did the little surrounding states like Korea, Japan, and Vietnam.  Then, in the middle 19th Century, Japan began a partial Westernization much sooner than did China.  By the end of the 19th Century Japan was waging imperialist war against first China, and then Russia, while gobbling up the Korean peninsula and Taiwan.  Eventually, in 1911, the old Imperial regime governing Chin collapsed, giving birth only to chaos and warlords.  Japan sought to exploit the Western preoccupation with Europe during the First World War, but Western diplomacy during and after the war dashed many hopes.  Thereafter, the Japanese government saw the Western powers—Britain, the United States, France, and Holland—as the chief stumbling-blocks to the expansion of Japan’s role in Asia.

At the same time, Japan had built its prosperity upon exports of simple, low-cost manufactured goods.  (This strategy is no different from the strategy initially pursued by post-Mao China.)  Then came the Great Depression (1928-1939), which led to a collapse of international trade.  Japan lost export markets, so it also lost the means to import vital resources.

Faced with national starvation, in 1931, Japan seized the natural resource-rich Chinese province of Manchuria.  This act of aggression earned Japan international scorn.  However, “scorn” doesn’t solve many problems.  In 1937, Japan returned to its ambitions of the First World War: to dominate China.  Japan invaded China.[1]  Seeming to recognize their unfavorable population ratios, the Japanese commanders indulged in barbaric conduct in hopes of cowing their enemies: the 1937 Nanjing Massacre prefigured the later conduct of Japanese troops.

Japanese leaders seem to have expected a relatively easy victory.  For one thing, European affairs had reached a crisis, with Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy on the rampage in Central Europe and the Mediterranean.  Britain and France had the means to fight one major war at a time (against Germany or Italy, or Japan), but not two (against Germany and Japan), let alone three (Germany, Italy, Japan).  For another thing, the United States had been pursuing an “isolationist” policy in the mid-Thirties.  Who would defend the existing order in the Far East if the United States would not?  Good question.  One with no clear answer until the end of 1941.

The anticipated easy victory in China for Japan remained just out of reach for the next eight years.  The better trained, better equipped, and better led Japanese troops inflicted defeat after defeat on the Chinese.  Yet, the Chinese government managed to avoid defeat, even as the government’s armies lost battle after battle.  In large part, avoiding defeat meant falling back from the coast to a geographically hard-to-approach position in the interior.  While this kept Chiang’s KMT government in nominal control, in reality the Japanese controlled virtually the entire coastline, the great cities, and the coastal plains on which most Chinese lived.  Thus, one question not much explored by Western historians is why and how the ordinary Chinese kept going in the midst of a brutal war.

In December 1941, Japan attacked the United States, and the British and Dutch empires.  A “War Without Mercy, on a Merciless Foe” followed.[2]  Thereafter, the Chinese theater played a small role in the global struggle we call the Second World War.  Rightly committed to a “Europe first” strategy, the United States and Britain waged war in the Far East on a shoe-string.  First, Marines and Army troops hung on, then won, on Guadalcanal after the US Navy ran away.[3]

Faced with war on trackless oceans and trackless jungles, the United States sought to maximize the Chinese war effort in order to divert Japanese troops from the real center of decision in the Pacific—the barrier of islands that barred the advance of American power from Hawaii to the Home Islands.  American military advisors, American supplies, and American airpower all sought to bolster the Chinese war effort.[4]  Unable to accept defeat or even stalemate, the Japanese government committed troops to China.  In the end, the Chinese front soaked up 800,000 Japanese troops.[5]  To no avail.

Chiang Kai-shek—called “Peanut” by the sour, acute American military advisor Joseph Stillwell–understood little to nothing of the global struggle.  To him, all that mattered was the struggle for mastery in China.  He saw a three-sided struggle raging between his own Nationalist government, the Japanese invaders, and the Chinese Communists.  Forced to choose his domestic allies, Chiang Kai-shek opted for the landlords and bankers, instead of for the peasantry.

All sides waged the Second World War in China with great brutality toward the civilian population.  All sides relied upon political repression.  The Japanese and the KMT tied in a race to the bottom.  The Americans decided the fate of the Japanese Empire, but Chiang’s “party”—the Kuomintang, KMT, Gearwheels—lost traction with the peasant majority and many others.

Recognizing the problems of the KMT in 1945-1947, the United States Government sent off emissaries to the Red Emperor, Mao Zedong, in Yenan Province.  These men—honestly—over-estimated the democratic intentions of the Communist, although they seem to have rightly evaluated the real strength of the Communists.  The KMT lacked support where it counted in a civil war and were going to lose.  The Communists were going to win and the United States should adapt to that reality.  The United States did not adjust to that reality.  In 1949, the Communists won the prolonged Chinese Civil War.  Many KMT survivors fled to Taiwan/Formosa.

Even the disturbing Communist victory didn’t have to start a downward spiral in Chinese-American relations.  Many informed Americans regarded Chiang Kai-shek as the man “who lost China.”  Many of the same people expected that the two countries would “let the dust settle,” then pick up relations.  But, in June 1950, the Korean War began.  The United States fought China in Korea, and reinforced both Taiwan and French Indo-China.  The Cold War became a part of East Asian affairs.  Later, the United States fought North Vietnam and the Cambodian Khmer Rouge.  Not until the 1970s were China and the United States able to begin a normalization of their relationship.

The lesson?  The Second World War in China, rather than the Korean War or the wars in Vietnam, offered the first basis for the injunction “never fight a land war in Asia.”[6]  But to whom does that lesson apply?

[1] Rana Mitter, The Forgotten Ally: China’s World War II, 1937-1945 (2018).

[2] John Dower, War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War (1987).  Astonishing.

[3] In 1941-1942, Australians referred to the war in the Pacific as “the War of the Two Yellow Races”—the Americans and the Japanese.

[4] See: Charles F. Romanus and Riley Sunderland, Stillwell’s Mission to China (1953); Stillwell’s Command Problems (1956); and Time Runs Out in CBI (1959).  Or see Barbara Tuchman, Stillwell and the Experience in China (1971), for a highly-readable “popular version” of same.

[5] Japan lost 36,000 men in the Guadalcanal Campaign.

[6] See the classic expression of this truth: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=esM457OXvuw

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