Tuesday, July 22, 2014


Film poster for "Jiawudahaizhan" (2012) which examines the First Sino-Japanese War of 1894-5

This coming August marks the 120th anniversary of the First Sino-Japan war that broke out in the summer of 1894 and was largely fought at sea, much to China’s detriment. Japan’s newly revamped and modernized navy made quick work of the out-of-date and moribund Qing Dynasty naval forces and in doing so changed the course of history.

The fighting was fierce but brief and within a year Japan’s stunning victory had radically altered the political map, not to mention the fate and fortunes of millions, for decades to come. Korea, which had long been a vassal state of China, fell under the boot of Japanese control, while the Chinese province of Taiwan and associated islands were ceded to Japan in the lopsided peace settlement of Shimonoseki, a peace without honor that deprived the China of both vital land and immense treasure.

In 1911 Chinese republicans overthrew the corrupt Qing dynasty, but years of feudal misrule had left China unable to stop the predations of outside powers. In response to collapse, anarchy and decay, two major projects of national self-strengthening were underway, one led by Mao Zedong, mostly in rural areas; the other led by Chiang Kai-shek in the cities. They shared a goal of a strong, united China when they weren’t trying to kill each other, like two tigers seeking to dominate the same mountain.

Meanwhile, Japan continued to modernize and industrialize, its resource base vastly enriched due to the spoils of Shimonoseki. In addition to colonial control of Taiwan and Korea, and many a strategic islet in between, Japan used stealth and outright audacity to gain an intimidating military position on the Chinese mainland. Using Korea and coastal ports as a springboard, Manchuria was decimated and reconfigured to serve as a Japanese hinterland.

Japanese kimono print commemorates Sino-Japanese War (from Hawaii Star-Bulletin) 

The Second Sino-Japanese war can be dated to 1931 when Japan launched its colonial invasion of Manchuria. Tensions simmered for six more years because the Nanjing government, under the iron-fisted control of KMT leader Chiang Kai-shek, did not consider it advantageous to confront Japan directly. But patriotic resistance mounted and by 1937 it took only a small skirmish on the Marco Polo Bridge on the outskirts of Beijing for all-out war to break loose.

The death and destruction that followed shook Asia to its foundations and is still passionately argued about today.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War I, and there has been pointed commentary to the effect that the lessons of that war, largely a European internal affair, somehow apply to the rising tensions between China and Japan today.

There may be indeed by uncanny parallels, for war is always folly and common sense is a predictable casualty as two sides square off, but it is the Sino-Japanese wars that are most relevant to the discussion. As American wit Mark Twain liked to point out, history doesn’t necessarily repeat but it sure does like to rhyme.

So what tragic echoes from the past and what sympathetic vibrations might help China and Japan avoid a face-off while trying to preserve face?

-Wars are rooted in miscalculation, each side trying to make the other blink first on the way to a rapid, total victory.

-Both Sino-Japanese wars started small and limited in scope; a clash at sea, a skirmish on a bridge. But a multiplier effect sets in once blood is drawn and things can quickly unravel out of control.

-Diplomatic negotiations tend to founder, and in effect become an expression of war by other means, if over-confidence and intransigence results in ultimatums rather than genuine mutual accommodation.

-Each side tends to over-estimate its own ability, while underestimating its rival.

-Korea’s thorny domestic politics have ensnared its neighbors, but it is also gets pitifully caught in the crossfire between them. Seen alternately as a dagger pointed at Japan or a springboard to invade the mainland, the Korean peninsula can become a proxy battlefront between the two.

-The infrastructure of Manchuria, train lines in particular, were key factors in both wars.

-Naval power is a strategic necessity for resource-poor Japan, while China's vast hinterland is its greatest strategic strength.

-Securing an alliance with a prevailing Atlantic power, such as Japan did with the UK the first time around, or with the US, as China did the second time around, can thwart one’s rival and alter the outcome.

-Small islands can assume strategic importance of asymmetrical proportions, influencing the fate of millions. In the first Sino-Japanese war, control of the Penghu Islands gave Tokyo a chokehold by which to exact control of Taiwan. The key battles of Japan’s Pacific war are like a roll call of otherwise obscure islands. Midway, Guam, Saipan, Guadalcanal, Iwo Jima and, of course, Okinawa. Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, itself an island outpost, was launched from the remote Kurile Islands.

-The Diaoyu/Senkaku islets, though not specifically stipulated as Japanese spoils in the treaty of Shimonoseki, fell under de facto control of Japan-administered Taiwan after 1895, and then later came under the benign neglect of American administration with the capitulation of Japan in 1945. The islets were of no importance in either war.

-Russia is in a geo-strategic position to benefit from any vacuum created by conflict between China and Japan. In both first and second wars, Russia made significant inroads into Manchuria as the Japanese threat receded.

-When China and Japan clash, the entire Asia-Pacific is shaken to its foundation. As the anniversary of the first Sino-Japanese war approaches, it is a good time to recall the lost live and unforgivably high cost of trading diplomacy and trade for armed raids and warfare.

 Japan's victory in 1895 paved way to seize Manchuria but led to defeat in 1945