FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 2, 2005
YALU RIVER, China After all the anti-Japanese outpourings that recently accompanied the 60th anniversary of the end of the Pacific War, it is worth recalling the 100th anniversary of the end of another war that helped sow the seeds of that later conflict. It is not just of historical interest but is relevant to the question of how we should view both Japan and the current rising power in northeast Asia, China.
On Sept. 5, 1905, the Russian-Japanese War formally came to an end with the Treaty of Portsmouth (New Hampshire), a deal mediated by President Theodore Roosevelt, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts. But Roosevelt’s best intentions left Japan, the overwhelming victor in the war, with a deep sense of grievance that festered for years and contributed to the extreme nationalist and anti-American sentiments of the 1930s.
For several years before the war, declared in February 1904, a fast-modernizing Japan had been endeavoring to gain entry, as an equal, to the imperialist club, then headed by Britain and including the United States and various European countries. At stake were not just the trading rights and treaty ports sought by the Europeans but control of Manchuria and Korea, both eyed by Russia and well as regarded by China as part of its territory.
Japan had defeated Imperial China in the war of 1894-95 and forced it to cede not only trading rights but Taiwan and Manchuria’s Liaodong peninsula with the port city now known as Dalian (and then known to Westerners as Port Arthur). It also accepted Korean independence, allowing Japan a freer hand there.
But when the treaty was signed, France, Germany and Russia ganged up on Japan and with threats of war forced it to back down on its claim to Liaodong and Dalian. No sooner had it done so than Russia occupied much of eastern Manchuria and built a railway to Dalian, intending it as its strategic ice-free Far Eastern port. It also sought to challenge Japan’s influence in nearby Korea.
Japan felt doubly aggrieved by the events of 1895 and so looked to follow the Western lead and back up its commercial ambitions with military might. So by the time it launched its war against Russia in 1904, aimed at righting the wrongs of 1895, it had a more modern fleet than Russia as well as the advantage of short communication lines for its land forces. They landed in Korea and crossed the Yalu River into Russian-occupied Manchuria. Japan’s series of triumphs on land and sea shook the world as the first defeat of a European power by a modernizing Asian one. It was also a very bloody conflict of machine guns and trenches that foreshadowed the First World War, though there were none of the atrocities later associated with the Japanese military. The cost and Russia’s failure precipitated the 1905 revolution, which foreshadowed that of 1917.
But from Japan’s perspective the fruits of a great victory were largely lost in the Treaty of Portsmouth. Russia withdrew from Manchuria and ceded half of Sakhalin Island. But Japan felt it was not accorded the equality it deserved and felt misled by Roosevelt on the issues of Sakhalin and a monetary indemnity. The treaty soured Japanese politics at home as well as entrenching a suspicion of the West and its racism and a determination to pursue its “rights” as an imperialist at a time when the United States had recently occupied the Philippines and Britain and France were still endeavoring to expand in Southeast Asia.
The history of 1895-1905 does not justify Chinese revanchism any more than it justified Japan’s occupation of Korea in 1910 or its control of Manchuria and the invasion of China in the 1930s. But it should be a reminder that now that China is a major player in the global economy and in regional power terms, its needs to be treated as such.
Nothing is more dangerous than to demean those who believe their hour in history has arrived.
IHT Copyright © 2005 The International Herald Tribune