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History

The Asia-Pacific War: Searching for its Start

There is much that preceded the attack at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. The author examines several differing views on when the Asia-Pacific War began.

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Pearl Harbor, the site of the United States' view of the start of the Asia-Pacific War, shines red at dusk on November 11, 2014 (© Sankei by Kenji Suzuki)

The commonly accepted juncture for the start of the Asia-Pacific War is December 7, 1941. Not, however, by one of the more prominent signatory powers upon the document of Japanese surrender: the government of China

The Chinese generally place the start of the war as July 7, 1937. That is the date of a minor altercation between Chinese and Japanese troops at the Marco Polo bridge, ten miles west of Beijing. Sometimes they also use September 18, 1931. That is when an inconsequential act of sabotage was carried out on a Japanese-controlled railway line near Mukden, Manchuria. These incidents, the Chinese allege, were exploited by the Japanese as a pretext for invasion. 

A question that immediately begs is whether it is possible to "invade" a nation in which your troops are already based. The Japanese did indeed "advance with excessive force and intent" into regions of the Chinese landmass to which they had hitherto been absent. Therefore, it could be argued that due to the scope and duration of the advance, "invasion" is the only applicable descriptive term. 

But a full reckoning of China's preferred dates must take into account that Japanese troops were already located on Chinese soil. An "invasion" is generally interpreted to be the initial crossing of a national border by an advancing military force. This did not occur in either 1931 or 1937.

The scene of Lake Yanagijo just after the Mukden, Manchuria explosion occurred. The Mantetsu Line is on the left. (© From the Military History Research Center of the National Institute for Defense Studies, Kaikosha's "Manchurian Incident Photo Collection"

Imperial Inequity

Imperial Japanese Army forces were resident within China under the terms of the treaties imposed upon that nation. They were signed after Japanese victory in the 1894-95 Sino-Japanese War and the subsequent Boxer Rebellion (1899-1901). These treaties were uncontroversial. A large array of nations were already in possession of similar privileges. Among them, the United States of America, Britain, Germany, Russia and France.

The first of these treaties was the Treaty of Nanking. It was concluded in 1842 between the British and Chinese after the termination of the First Opium War. The Nanjing pact set the precedent for the treaties that the West would impose upon Japan. That came after Japan's opening in 1853. Subsequently, Japan would foist the same terms upon both China and Korea.

They were recorded by history as "unequal treaties." In other words, they awarded rights to one party which the other did not share. The principal terms of these nineteenth century protocols were low tariffs on foreign goods and the establishment of foreign settlements. Within those, extraterritoriality—the right to police one's self—prevailed. An impact of extraterritorial rights was the stark division of China's major cities. One part was administered by the Chinese and the other run by its imperial guests. 

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China marks the 86th anniversary of the Marco Polo Bridge Incident at the Chinese People's War of Resistance Against Japanese War Memorial, July 7, 2023 in Beijing ((© Xinhua News Agency via Kyodo)

An Unsustainable Humiliation

The inevitable implication of these humiliating concessions was the gradual debasement of the Chinese government into a state of virtual impotence. What followed was its collapse in 1912

China would then fracture into a collection of warlord-led fiefdoms. These culminated in the establishment of the nationalist and communist movements that would fight for control until the communists prevailed in 1949.

The China of the 1930s, therefore, was a fractured state. It could even be argued that Japan could not have "invaded China" because there was no state of China to invade. 

Japan's military misadventure within China during the 1930s might be better characterized as large-scale imperial intrusion attempting to ensure that in the process of Chinese reunification, an anti-communist option would prevail.

Opium Wars - Destroying Chinese War Junks, by E. Duncan 1843. (Public Domain via Wikipedia Commons)

Failures of Nineteenth Century China

A further pertinent question within the lead-up to the Asia-Pacific War is why the West was able to dominate nineteenth century China so comprehensively. For much of the previous half dozen millennia, China had been the world's preeminent military, scientific and industrial power. Such a nation should not have had much difficulty seeing off the considerably smaller European states and a nascent USA.

Fifteenth century China possessed a great fleet of ocean-going ships that had arguably reached the four corners of the earth. It was well placed to colonize the Pacific, Africa and the Americas.

A policy of isolationism however, enacted in 1433, resulted in the ships being left to rot. The pace of China's development was thereby curtailed. Thereafter, the industrial revolution vaulted the military capabilities of the Western nations far ahead. 

American Involvement Within Asia

A further gaping void in historical understanding relates to the involvement within Asia of the United States of America. The US tends to portray its pre-Asia-Pacific War posture in isolationist terms. In truth, its imperial footprint within the Asian region stretches back almost as far as that of the British themselves. Moreover, much of America's "old-money" East Coast wealth had roots in the Chinese opium trade.

During the decades that followed the signing of the Treaty of Nanking, US advancement within Asia mirrored that of its near uninterrupted domestic rise. Meanwhile, the fate of the European states was to rise, peak, and gradually decline. 

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By the early 1930s, the US and Japan were the only two of China's resident interlopers with the ability and inclination to expand their imperial presence.

The US was similarly concerned about the prospect of a communist victory within China. Indeed, the support of US-friendly anti-communist governments, their lack of democratic credentials notwithstanding, has been the dominant postwar foreign policy mantra of that nation. 

As with Japan, it saw itself as a future non-communist Chinese government's sole guiding hand. And thus, the US and Japan were inexorably drawn towards war.

The Showa Emperor and General Douglas MacArthur, head of the Allied Occupation of Japan.

Postwar Partners

At the surrender of Japan, enemies became allied. The relationship between the US and Japan during the postwar years has been very much "hand in glove." 

Indeed, it led former US President, George W Bush, to tragically conclude that as with Japan, Iraq could be remade as a reliable US ally. What President Bush failed to comprehend was that the combatant US and Japanese administrations did not have a substantive policy disagreement. Both sought to be the singular voice that a future non-communist Chinese regime could not ignore. 

They disagreed only upon who would possess that voice. 

The USS Arizona burns at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 (© Getty/Kyodo)

Competing Candidates

Multiple candidates thereby exist for the source of the Asia-Pacific War. There is the American preference for December 7, 1941 and the Chinese counters of 1937 and 1931. 

Then there are the 1899-1901 Boxer Rebellion, the 1894-95 Sino-Japanese War, the 1842 ratification of the Treaty of Nanking, or the 1433 isolationist decree. Or there could be a compromise date pertaining to two or more of the above. 

While most would feel that a fifteenth century origin is unnaturally distant, it should similarly be clear that one should not overly fixate on December 7, 1941. The Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor did indeed bring the matter to a head, but the origin of the conflict lies many years prior. 

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Author: Paul de Vries
Find other reviews and articles by the author on Asia Pacific history on JAPAN Forward.

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