World History 2 217 - 13.1.1 Asia for Asians

The fight between Japan and China in the 1930s lit the fuse that made World War II a global conflict. The spark may have been Japan’s long-standing perception of Western racism, dating back to the nineteenth century and shown more recently in the rejection of Japan’s proposed racial equality amendment to the Treaty of Versailles. This had been done at the insistence of Australia and the British delegation. Part of Japan’s underlying thinking was to rid Asia of Western colonial influences, although it also clearly saw itself as the new leader of the region.

Since the end of the Russo-Japanese War in 1905, Japan had held the right to lease the South Manchuria Railway in northeastern China, a privilege previously held by Russia. However, Japan now claimed rights to control extensive territory in northeastern China outside the railway zone and stationed its troops in the region. In 1931, these troops detonated explosives along the track of the South Manchuria Railway and blamed the act on Chinese saboteurs. This gave Japan an excuse to invade and annex Manchuria (also called Manchukuo) on the pretext that it was defending Japanese interests. To deflect international attention from this incident, commonly known as the Mukden Incident, the Japanese provoked some sharp clashes with Chinese troops in Shanghai. A cease-fire on May 5, 1932, concluded the First Shanghai Incident.

Simultaneously, the Imperial Japanese Kwantung Army in Manchukuo continued to expand its operations and control. The army pushed southward to the Great Wall, absorbing more Chinese territory into its zone of control. Eventually, on May 22, 1933, the Japanese and China’s Guomindang government (GMD, also spelled “Kuomintang”) concluded the Tanggu Truce, forming a demilitarized zone that stretched one hundred kilometers south of the Great Wall and essentially detached Manchukuo from the nation of China. Thereafter, Manchukuo, which had rich coal and iron ore deposits, was developed as an economic engine for the Japanese Empire, securing North China, countering any spread of communism or Soviet influence, and preparing the way for a wider conflict (Figure 13.4).

The map shows parts of east Asia and the Pacific Ocean. The territory of Manchukuo (Manchuria) is highlighted pink and labeled “c. 1933.” Manchukuo is bordered by Russia to the northeast, north, and northwest, Mongolia to the west, China to the southwest, and North Korea to the southeast. It also has the Yellow Sea to the south and the Sea of Japan and the country of Japan to the east.
Figure 13.4 Beginning in 1933, the Tanggu Truce between China and Japan allowed Manchukuo (Manchuria) to be developed as an economic engine for Japan. (attribution: Copyright Rice University, OpenStax, under CC BY 4.0 license)

The nationalist GMD government and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) had been fighting a civil war since 1927. In 1934, GMD troops displaced from Manchukuo by the Japanese had repositioned themselves south of the Great Wall when President Chiang Kai-shek (Jiang Jieshi)1 ordered them to attack the Chinese communists under Mao Zedong at their nearby base in Yan’an, Shaanxi Province. Chinese public opinion rejected the idea of Chinese fighting Chinese in the face of Japan’s aggression. In December 1936, during the so-called Xian Incident, Chiang Kai-shek was taken prisoner in Xian, China, by Manchurian forces and forced to negotiate a cessation of the Civil War and the creation of the Second United Front—unifying the GMD and the CCP against Japan.

Tensions in North China escalated early in July 1937, as Japanese troops were conducting night exercises near the Marco Polo Bridge ten miles west of Beijing and firefights erupted between them and Chinese troops. The Japanese quickly overcame the Chinese forces and secured their control of the area around Beijing and Tianjin.

Chiang Kai-shek then decided to shift the fighting to the Shanghai region, where he had better forces and a seeming numerical advantage. The Japanese responded by mounting a major offensive, and by November 1937, the GMD forces had been badly mauled. After losing 250,000 troops, they retreated westward to China’s capital in Nanjing. Japanese forces closed in on Nanjing, and Chinese troops continued to retreat westward. On December 12, 1937, Chinese resistance at Nanjing ceased, and Japanese troops entered the defenseless city, commencing a terrifying seven-week reign of terror and plunder. Foreign witnesses in the city estimated that twenty thousand Chinese women and girls were raped. Some thirty thousand Chinese soldiers who could not be evacuated were executed, and perhaps as many as twelve thousand civilians were also killed. Other historians put the number of dead at 300,000. (Such discrepancies in numbers occur because historians may disagree on which deaths can be attributed to an event.) The tragedy became known as the “Rape of Nanking” (the older spelling of Nanjing) and was taken up at the Tokyo War Crimes trials after the war.

Japan redoubled its efforts to subdue China. Having retreated farther west to defend the GMD’s new provisional capital at Chongqing, some GMD armies put up stiff resistance in places, but by 1938, they had been pushed back significantly. To prevent further Japanese advances, Chiang Kai-shek ordered the opening of the dikes on the Yellow River, flooding large portions of central China, killing an estimated 400,000 people and dislocating ten million more. In December 1937, the Japanese sank the USS Panay, a gunboat on the Yangtze River that was extracting American and Chinese civilians from Nanjing at the time. The Japanese government accepted responsibility and apologized for the Panay incident, paying restitution of more than $2 million (at least $37 million in today’s money). Through all this, public opinion in the United States, while increasingly shifting in favor of China, was still undecided about entering any war.

The Great Depression and the rise of fascism in Europe seemed to signal the decline of the older Western-dominated world order. Japanese intellectuals, politicians, military leaders, and mass media envisioned that Japan could fashion a “new order” of regional supremacy for itself. In an August 1940 radio address, Japanese foreign minister Yosuke Matsuoka broached his vision for a Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere as a blueprint for Japan’s ascent to world-power status. A year later, he published a book further developing his ideas for liberating Asians from European domination and expelling the “white race bloc” suppressing Asia’s destiny. By 1941, creating the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere had become the publicly articulated objective of Japan’s Asian aggression, and it remained so until Japan’s defeat in 1945.

Eventually, finding themselves in a stalemate in China and needing more natural resources to sustain the war and the goal of creating the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, the Japanese military and civilian governments began to consider a thrust into Southeast Asia. Such a move would inevitably mean a confrontation with the United States and its colony the Philippines. Japan conceived a desperately hopeful plan of war against the United States and an initial knockout strike on the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

This lesson has no exercises.

The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 2: from 1400 textbook by Openstax