In times of rising tensions and uncertainty in the Asia Pacific, it is essential that we look back into the region’s complex past to understand why history, to a degree perhaps unseen anywhere else, is so alive as to threaten the very foundations laid by the economic success of the past two decades.
A new book on the wars that defined the first half of the twentieth century — and that reverberate through time to create a mosaic of seemingly intractable conflicts — sheds much-needed light on the origins of the region’s troubles, past, present and future.
In The Wars for Asia, 1911-1949, S.C.M. Paine, a professor of strategy and policy at the US Naval War College, picks up where she left off in The Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895: Perceptions, Power, and Primacy (2005), which did a wonderful job analyzing China’s humiliating defeat in a short war with Japan that ended with the Treaty of Shimonoseki under which, among other things, Taiwan was handed over to Japan. In that defeat, the seeds of China’s “century of humiliation” were sown, which half a century later would reap a new — and this time much more devastating — round of hostilities before, during and after World War II.
In her previous work, Paine showed us how a recently modernized Japan made short shrift of China not so much because Japanese forces fought with aplomb, but because of China’s ineptness and the divisions that rendered its leadership incapable of taking control of the situation. Emboldened by its victory and arrival among the select list of developed nations — Asia’s first — Japan then fought another war, this time with Russia, where against all odds defeated its European adversary, thus setting the stage for future conflict over Korea and Manchuria.
The Wars for Asia, 1911-1949
By S.C.M. Paine
Cambridge University Press
Sadly for readers, Paine does not cover the Russo-Japanese War and in The Wars for Asia begins her story, which she tells thematically rather than in linear fashion, in 1911 with the birth of the Republic of China. Using large quantities of sources from China, Taiwan, Japan and Russia, Paine lucidly tells a tale from a perspective that often gets largely ignored by historians in the West by looking at the situation from the eyes of the Asian participants themselves.
As a result, Paine’s account provides much insight into decisions that otherwise have often been described as “irrational” (for example, Japan’s forcing the US’ entry into the Pacific theater by attacking Pearl Harbor) or the result of utterly incapable leaders (Chiang Kai-shek, 蔣介石). She also sheds important light on the domestic economic policies adopted by the US that, rather than deter Japan, achieved the exact opposite and compelled it to send its troops well beyond Manchuria, where they should have gone no further.
In a helpful move, the author provides three levels — local, regional and global — from which to look at the situation in East Asia at the beginning of the twentieth century. All three have China at the center, with Japan regarding it as both a source of threats and opportunity. Ongoing instability in China, with a long succession of overthrows, warlordism and stagnation, added to the threat of communism following the revolution in Russia. For resource-poor Japan, China (especially Manchuria) was too important to leave alone as an indispensable lifeline to ensure its rightful place among the world’s leading nations.