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English News  No.10 , December 2002
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Vladimir Buldakov
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The Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895

Sarah Paine (US Naval War College, Rhode Island,
Foreign Visiting Fellow, SRC, 2002-03)

Ostensibly the Sino-Japanese War was a conflict between Japan and China for dominance over China's tributary, Korea. In reality, it was a Japanese attempt to preempt Russian expansion down the Korean Peninsula to threaten Japan. It was also the first of a two limited wars in pursuit of an overarching policy objective: Japanese policymakers believed that dominance over the Korean Peninsula by any great power would directly threaten their national security. They sought to protect Japan first by expelling China in the Sino-Japanese War and, then a decade later, by expelling Russia from both Korea and southern Manchuria in the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905). A quarter of a century later, continuing Russian involvement in China and Japanese perceptions of the threat that this entailed culminated in a second and much longer Sino-Japanese War (1932-45). Although the policy of Russian containment is generally associated with U.S. foreign policy during the Cold War, in reality, from the first Sino-Japanese War to the end of World War II, Japanese policymakers had consistently applied containment to Russia.

The first Sino-Japanese War had an enormous impact on foreign perceptions of Japan and China. Prior to the war, the popular 1885 British musical, The Mikado, expressed the prevailing European view of Japan. The musical begins with a chorus of samurai singing:

“If you want to know who we are, / We are gentlemen of Japan: / On many a vase and jar - / On many a screen and fan, / We figure in lively paint: / Our attitudes queer and quaint.”

The next verse proceeds,

“If you think we are worked by strings, / Like a Japanese marionette, / You don't understand these things: / It is simply Court etiquette.”

This was the European view: A quaint Japan preoccupied with stultifying rules of etiquette instead of the serious pursuits of European powers. In contrast, China, greatly popularized by such Enlightenment philosophers as Voltaire, continued to retain the respect of the West. On the eve of war, the British-owned North-China Herald described China as the “only great Asiatic State that really commands the respect of the Great Powers of the World.”

In less than one year all this changed. Despite China's vastly larger population, army, and resource base, and despite its shorter lines of communication, superior battleships, and years of military modernization, it lost every battle and lost badly. Its troops fled the field in disarray, abandoning vital supplies, and preyed on the local population. Meanwhile its civil officials focused more on preserving their own power at the expense of their domestic rivals, than on cooperating to defeat the foreign foe. Just as Chinese corruption and incompetence disgusted, so Japanese military prowess and professionalism impressed the war's foreign spectators.

In 1895 the U.S. Secretary of the Navy, Hilary A. Herbert, wrote: “Japan has leaped, almost at one bound, to a place among the great nations of the earth. Her recent exploits in the war with China have focused all eyes upon her, and the world now comprehends the startling fact that this small island kingdom, so little taken account of heretofore in the calculations even of students and statesmen, has within a few decades stridden over ground traversed by other nations only within centuries.” The British journalist and expert on Asia, Sir Henry Norman, wrote mid-war: “The war with China and the treaty with England [of 1894 according Japan juridical equality] will at last force foreigners to see Japan as she is. The Japanese are a martial and proud race, with marvelous intelligence, and untiring energy and enthusiasm.”

In contrast to Japan, the post-war European view of China was anything but flattering. According to the official newspaper of the Russian Foreign Ministry, Journal de St-Pétersbourg, “Since the beginning of this war, the Chinese have provided a lamentable spectacle. No one suspected such weakness.” One British expert on Asia, Alexis Krausse, described China as “[c]orrupt to the core, ill-governed, lacking cohesion and without means of defending herself... To believe in the recuperative power of China is mere wasted faith... China as a political entity is doomed.”

These comments are based on the research conducted for Dr. Paine's forth coming book, The Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895: Perceptions, Power, and Primacy, to be published by Cambridge University Press in December of 2002.

The war changed perceptions in both the East and the West, affecting the foreign policies of all those engaged in the Far East. Perceptions of Chinese weakness led to far more aggressive foreign intrusions, ushering in the period known as “the scramble for concessions” when foreign powers partitioned China into spheres of influence. Conversely, perceptions of Japan's strength led to its inclusion in the ranks of the imperial powers. The 1902 Anglo-Japanese alliance confirmed Japan's new status. This was Britain's only alliance from the end of the Napoleonic Wars until World War I.

A new balance of power had emerged. China's millennia-long regional dominance had abruptly ended. Japan had become the dominant power of Asia, a position it would retain throughout the twentieth century. Japan had demonstrated the potentially global consequences of rapid economic growth coupled with political transformation. In doing so, it had proven that industrialization was not the cultural monopoly of the West.

If the war catapulted Japan into the ranks of the powers, it hurtled China on a long downward spiral. It shattered any basis for China's tenacious sense of unbreachable superiority and forced a Chinese reappraisal of their place in the world. Defeat by Japan, a former member of the Confucian world, did this much more decisively than any Western defeat, including those in the Opium Wars, ever did or ever could. This was because defeat by an alien civilization could be discounted whereas defeat by a former member of the Confucian order could not. Equally shattered were any vestiges of political stability in China. Victory by a transformed member of the Confucian order fatally undermined the legitimacy of that order. For the Chinese, the war kicked the bottom out of their world. A century later, they had yet to find a satisfactory replacement for the stable Confucian order that so long had formed the bedrock of Chinese thought.

The war also had an enormous impact on Russia. It caused a fundamental reorientation of Russian foreign policy away from Europe to Asia. The Russian government concluded that Japan constituted a major threat to its weakly defended Siberian frontier. Therefore, it rapidly accelerated plans for Russian colonization and development of Manchuria, making the fateful decision to run the Siberian railway, not along the northern bank of the Amur River as it does today, but straight through northern Manchuria to make a much shorter link between Lake Baikal and Vladivostok. When the Boxer Rebellion of 1900 heavily damaged the railway line, Russia responded by deploying over 100,000 troops to occupy all of Manchuria. The Japanese could only interpret these enormous financial and military commitments in Manchuria to mean one thing: Russia intended to minimize Japanese infiltration of the Asian mainland. These competing Russian and Japanese ambitions came to blows in the Russo-Japanese War.

The Sino-Japanese War marked the end of the old Confucian order and its tributary system for conducting Far Eastern relations. As indicated by the Anglo-Japanese alliance and the reorientation of Russian foreign policy, the war also heralded a new era of global politics in which Asian events would have a direct impact on Europe.

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