The Russo-Japanese War Pt1 (War and Peace in East Asia, Lecture 6)

After exploring the information problems at the root of the First Sino-Japanese War on Tuesday, today’s lecture lets us see the working out of a different story—one based on shifting military potential, or bargaining leverage—even as the war breaks out over (essentially) the same stakes: dominance in Korea and Manchuria, which we might view as the twin keys to dominating the East Asian mainland. By 1904, with Imperial China’s star on the wane and Imperial Japan’s on the rise, another great power enters the regional picture in the form of a Russian Empire aiming to deepen control over its easternmost holdings. At this point, sure, it owns Siberia, and while it’s not clear that it really controls it just yet, the expansion of the Russian rail network eastward to the port of Vladivostok (literally, “Ruler of the East”—which is about as aspirationally bold as you’re gonna get) signals that Japan, the region’s new great power, is about to face some competition.

Of course, it wasn’t inevitable that rising Russian military strength—and it’s hard to read a new railway connecting the (populated) European and the (vast, empty, valuable) Asian ends of the Russian realm as anything but—should’ve led to war with Japan. Plenty of countries grow militarily stronger, better able to concentrate and apply military force, without provoking other countries to attack them. Yet because of the significant increase in military potential that would be signaled by the completion of a solid railway network, the Russo-Japanese War of 1904 is one of those cases where things got violent. Japan launched a surprise attack on the Russian Far Eastern Fleet (basically ending it as a combat-capable force) and ultimately knocked the stunned Russian forces back across Manchuria, and it appears to have done so not literally because of the Trans-Siberian Railway but because of what it represented: the imminent ability of Russia to move large numbers of troops into northeast Asia and challenge Japan’s hard-won (and thanks to the Triple Intervention of 1895, only partial) ascendancy in the region. So, the Russo-Japanese War looks a lot like a war driven by commitment problems at its outbreak, but that doesn’t mean that information problems can’t play a role during the war, as I discussed the last time I blogged about this lecture:

Near the end of Connaughton’s account of the war, we see some contemporary puzzlement about why, despite destroying the Tsar’s fleet and driving the Russians from Manchuria, the terms of the Treaty of Portsmouth gave Japan no indemnity (just some interests on the Liaodong peninsula) and dictated a mutual withdrawal from Manchuria. This quote from the New York Times is telling (quoted on p. 344):

The judgment of all observers here…is that the [Russian] victory is as astonishing a thing as ever was seen in diplomatic history. A nation hopelessly beaten in every battle of the war, one army captured and the other overwhelmingly routed, with a navy swept from the seas, dictated her own terms to the victory.

But, really, is it all that puzzling? Just a few pages before, we learn some crucial facts about the military situation at war’s end: Japan totters near bankruptcy, while Russia, despite her dim record on the battlefield, has access to cheaper credit and the ability to continue to pour troops into the region. Both sides, moreover, seemed to know this. Japan couldn’t hold out too much longer in Manchuria itself, and Russian reinforcements likely could’ve taken advantage of the deteriorating Japanese position if the war were to continue (though, to be fair, the Revolution of 1905 was brewing at the time).

Still, it seems that by this time, Japan and Russia has similar expectations over what the rest of the war would look like, which according to informational accounts of war termination (see, inter aliathisthis, and this), can facilitate peaceful settlement, as states will strike a bargain that looks like the ultimate outcome (roughly) but saves the costs of getting all the way there. Granted, this doesn’t mean they’ll strike a bargain that reflects the current military situation—and the Treaty of Portsmouth was manifestly not that—but that reflects their shared assessment of what fighting to the finish would look like.

In the final accounting, did Russia pull off a diplomatic coup that produced a settlement at variance with what “should” have happened, given the course of the war? It depends on your perspective, I suppose, but if the “course of the war” is the story of the information transmitted to each side about (a) Russia’s ability to reinforce and (b) Japan’s ability to fund the war, then the answer would have to be a pretty emphatic “no.” It’s a subtle, but oft-missed point: accounts of war termination can explain why the final settlement might look nothing like the final battlefield dispositions yet still prove stable: a war fought to the finish might look quite a bit different than where the belligerents happen to be when they sue for peace.

Even when information problems aren’t enough to get potential belligerents all the way to war, the latter can still play a role in determining precisely when and how wars driven by commitment problems come to an end (on combining bargaining problems, see this). Still, there’s another puzzle here: why would the Tsar order the construction of a railway that he had to suspect would lead Japan to think about a preventive war to maintain its position in Manchuria and Korea? William Spaniel argues that it might have to do with the very information problem that characterized the fighting—Russia might’ve been uncertain over just how willing Japan would be to accommodate Russia’s growing military potential in the region—prompting it to risk the construction of a railway that might (but might not, if Japan is hesitant to fight) result in a preventive war. This problem, the fact that some instances of shifting military power are choices (and thus need not be chosen) will emerge over and over again throughout the class, so it’s worth thinking about just how countries can choose to embark on armament or development programs that provoke the very wars they hope to deter as a result of growing strong…

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One thought on “The Russo-Japanese War Pt1 (War and Peace in East Asia, Lecture 6)

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

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