The First Sino-Japanese War (War and Peace in East Asia, Lecture 5)

Today’s topic is the First Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895, which marks the beginning of Part II of the course: The Rise (and Fall) of Japan (see the syllabus here). Before we get around to how we can use last week’s explanations for war to account for this conflict’s outbreak and termination, though, it’s worth linking the underlying issues to the war to our characterization of the international system in the second lecture. If you’ll recall, we noted that in a system of territorial states (or “states” in the case of surviving empires) under a decentralized, nominally anarchic institutional environment, we can expect two broad sources of conflict to emerge over the terms of that global settlement: (a) the placement of borders and (b) who controls the lands enclosed. The latter can include a few types of war, from civil conflicts to wars of conquest and deposition, and in each case the result can range from the simple revision of borders to the replacement of governments to changes in the global hierarchies of power, wealth, and prestige. As luck would have it, today’s conflict ends up with consequences for all three; Japan gains colonies, which represent a middle ground between (or maybe a hybrid of?) changing borders and replacing governments, and it completes the displacement of Imperial China from its place atop the regional power hierarchy, which had been eroding at least since the mid-17th century.

As for the causes of the war—the bargaining problem that caused an uneasy peace to break down in 1894 and whose resolution led to a new settlement in 1895—I’ll quote the relevant blog post from the last time I taught this course:

Today [in September 2013, ed.] was one of those days where a gamble really pays off. I assigned a chapter of S.C.M. Paine’s The Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895, hoping that it would give the class some clues as to why the two main belligerents couldn’t reach a deal over the governance of Korea and avert what turned out to be a pretty significant war. As it happened, we were treated to a textbook story about mutual optimism leading to inconsistent expectations about the likely outcome of the war, rooted in what were essentially different theories of how wars are won: the Qing [Imperial China] expected numbers to carry the day, while Japan was willing to bet on its qualitatively superior Westernized forces.

As it happened, war quickly laid bare whose forces were superior, as Japan decimated the Chinese navy and was making quick work of its military forces on the Liaodong Peninsula when China ultimately sued for peace. So it’s a great story for our understanding of war—especially war termination—and asymmetric information, but what I found most fascinating was the account of the debate within Japan about just how far to press the advantage once they had the Qing on the ropes: fearing foreign intervention, especially the Russians and Germans, elements of the Japanese elite wanted to limit their aims in order to guarantee they could keep what they got. So they moderated their aims a bit, and while they still took off a little to much, being forced by the Russians, Germans, and French (the Triple Intervention) to cede the Liaodong Peninsula back to China (who subsequently leased it to the Russians), it was a pretty clear example of the dynamic Suzanne Werner analyzed here: where states that don’t intervene in a war can still have a profound affect on its aims and its course.

So we built on the basic informational account of war by tracing (a) how battlefield outcomes affect war aims and (b) how the shadow of outside intervention can affect war outcomes, even when that intervention may not materialize.

That’s a fairly clean(-ish) information story, even with the pretty substantial interference of the other great powers in shaping the final settlement, but it’s also illustrative of another key point to which we’ll return all semester: states generally fight wars not for the sake of fighting, but for the sake of shaping the order that will follow fighting, forcing their opponents to accede to a new set of arrangements—a new network of bargains—that peaceful diplomacy failed to achieve. In the First Sino-Japanese War, Japan wrested from China not only imperial possessions but also a place of prominence in other states’ estimates of their relative power and prestige, both of which would go on to shape in profound ways Japan’s experience of being a great power in the first half of the 20th century.

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2 thoughts on “The First Sino-Japanese War (War and Peace in East Asia, Lecture 5)

  1. Pingback: The Russo-Japanese War Pt1 (War and Peace in East Asia, Lecture 6) | The Wolf Den

  2. Pingback: Exam Day in War and Peace in East Asia | The Wolf Den

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