The Second Sino-Japanese War (War and Peace in East Asia, Lecture 8)

The last time I gave this lecture, we focused on the dilemma facing Chiang Kai-Shek as he faced a Japanese invasion of China proper in 1937 and a still on-going civil war against Mao’s Communists, and you can find that piece here. This time around, though, I think it’s worth focusing on something different: why, despite China’s vast size, Japan even bothered trying to subdue the whole country at all. Looking back from the costly stalemate of 1941, it certainly looks puzzling: what began in the early 1930s as steady encroachment south of Japan’s puppet state in Manchuria turned after the Marco Polo Bridge Incident in 1937 into a full-scale invasion, one that Japan, the strength of its arms notwithstanding, didn’t look terribly well-poised to pull off.

We argued in class that the decision to invade China, and to do it in 1937, had a lot to do not just with China itself but with…the Soviet Union. The sheer enormity of the conflict, which between 1937 and 1945 would turn nearly one quarter of China’s population into refugees, makes it easy to focus directly on Sino-Japanese rivalry, but for a couple of reasons, I’m not sure that’s sufficient to explain (a) Japan’s decision to invade in 1937 and (b) a set of war aims that expanded over time, even as the war stalemated. After all, it might’ve been easier to invade China earlier in the 1930s when the military-political situation was more chaotic, and expanding war aims even as military prospects worsened isn’t quite consistent with the idea that Japan really launched the war because it initially underestimated Chiang’s ability to marshal resistance. Why, then, did it begin to invade China in 1937, then around 1938-1939 really ramp up its attempts to conquer as much of it as possible?

For a clue, I think we need to look at two events usually not part of the story we tell about this war, both of which relate to the bigger picture of great power rivalry in northeast Asia that drove both the First Sino-Japanese and the Russo-Japanese Wars we talked about last week. Japan, increasingly convinced that it needed its own large, captive market to ensure autarky if it was to compete with other great powers, was worried not only about a potentially resurgent China but, in the shorter term, a Soviet Union embarking on rapid industrialization on its way to becoming a greater power than the Tsarist regime that preceded it. In fact, with control over Manchuria established in 1931, (1) Japan appears to have seriously considered a preventive war with the Soviet Union in 1932-1933, but ultimately opted to explore further gains in China instead. Next, following the Great Purge, which created widespread uncertainty about the Soviet military’s short-term prospects, (2) Japan fought an intense border war (called the Nomonhan Incident) against the Soviets in Mongolia, which forced a revision of Japanese beliefs about Soviet strength (the Soviets under Zhukov proved much more capable than expected), convincing its leaders that their hold on northern China might not be enough in the long run to ensure autarky—and survival.

Faced with what it believed to be decline as a great power if it couldn’t secure a massive internal market, Japan embarked on a war with low odds of success because it preserved some chance of breaking out of what it believed to be a geographic-demographic economic straitjacket. Cutting a deal and returning even to Manchuria itself was, to the leadership a non-starter, because the status quo ante was believed to be intolerable in the long-run. Ultimately, this means that Japanese war aims shouldn’t be tied directly to battle outcomes, as they would be if the war really were about uncertainty over relative strength with Chiang’s Nationalist government, but to what its leaders believed they would have to secure in order to arrest their country’s decline as a great power. And when states fight preventive wars of this sort, we know that they can be prone to some pretty big gambles (like unrestricted submarine warfare and massive invasions of Stalinist Russia) that court catastrophe…which will make our story of the stalemated war in China get a lot more interesting once we reach 1941 next week.