The game of global empires has always had one magnetic pole in China. That’s a fancy way of saying that the land of silk and spices has always been an ultimate objective for European empires, which all imposed a full range of policy tools on the creaking Qing Dynasty during the 19th Century, and the Great War is in part a competition over which capital — London or Berlin — will be the opposite magnetic locus of the world’s most ancient east-west trade route. Germany began the war with a prized eastern colony at Tsingtao and an unmatched Pacific cruiser fleet, but that jewel in the Kaiser’s crown was lost a year ago when the war was still young, by far the hardest blow to his prestige so far in this current global conflict.
Military matters are central to the decline of the Chinese monarchy. Embarrassments in the Opium Wars deepened popular discontent with the ‘Mandate of Heaven,’ sparking the fourteen-year Taiping Rebellion, which is still the bloodiest civil war in world history and boasts a death toll twice as high as the Great War. Following their Pyrrhic victory, the dynasty survived the failure of the xenophobic Boxer Rebellion, still tottering on until Yuan Shikai (see above) leveraged the 1911 Xinhai Rebellion to depose the child-emperor Puyi and declare a republic. Shikai’s rise has signaled a new age of political generals taking charge of the state, a phenomenon that will be mirrored around the world throughout the 20th Century.
Of course, the Entente powers have no military assets to spare for the Far East in their already far-flung war, so Britain — which began the deconstruction of Chinese sovereignty seventy-five years before — had to invoke their tenuous alliance with Japan, a veritable deal with the devil. Having already decisively defeated Russia a decade ago, the Japanese empire has now defeated a second European competitor, and their continued occupation of Tsingtao and Shantung Province has been accompanied by a new diplomatic boldness towards Beijing. In January, after the Chinese government formally requested the withdrawal of Japanese troops, the expansionist foreign minister Kato Takaaki responded by presenting Yuan Shikai with a laundry list of twenty-one demands.
In addition to 99-year leases on the former Russian station at Port Arthur and the strategic railways of Manchuria, Japan wanted control of mining operations throughout China, Tokyo banks wanted to be first in line for financing capital projects, and Takaaki wanted the effective closing of the decades-old ‘Open Door Policy,’ demanding the Chinese close their coastal cities to any further encroachments by foreign powers. To ensure Chinese dependency, Japan demands to supply at least half the Chinese Army’s munitions, and insists that China’s police bureau hire Japanese officers for a joint administration that will better-favor Japanese citizens doing business in China. Threatening to “take steps she may deem necessary,” the Japanese government delivered an ultimatum in May, whereupon Yuan was forced to capitulate on most of these points to avoid war.
Because he holds the allegiance of the military governors across the country, Yuan seems to be the only thing holding China together anymore. He has already crushed the Kuomintang (Nationalist Party) in prewar power struggles with revolutionary leader Sun Yat-Sen, allowing him to dissolve parliament and become a lone strongman in a huge country that seems ready to unravel at any minute. This instability may explain why a political movement to crown him as a new emperor emerged in August, a controversial proposal for which Japanese negotiators had signaled support in May if he would agree to their demands. Rather than hold back the wave of anti-Japanese outrage resulting from the May ultimatum, Yuan has made it his central argument for returning to monarchy.
Yesterday, however, the government of Japan gives formal notice of their opposition to Yuan’s designs on the imperial throne, becoming the first state to do so. Fatefully, these events are closely monitored across the world in Washington, DC, where the US Department of State received a cable two days ago from Ambassador Paul Reinsch.
The Chinese Government maintain that the question of the form of state is a purely domestic one, which could be turned into a matter of international action only for unjustifiable reason of foreign political ambitions, since they feel assured that no disturbances will occur unless through foreign instigation and that foreign interests are therefore in no sense endangered or involved at all. Japan’s assertion of vital interest in domestic policies of China would in itself amount to a claim of virtual suzerainty.
The next day, Secretary of State Robert Lansing wrote a memorandum to President Woodrow Wilson regarding word from the Chinese embassy in Washington.
It would appear from this that the Chinese Government had decided to establish a monarchical form of Government. Whether this determination was reached prior to the protest by Japan and the entente powers it is impossible to say, but in view of the usual delay of the Chinese in presenting communications of this sort I assume that this telegram came through before Japan and the other powers had acted.
Lansing is complaining about the way Yuan withheld details of the Japanese demands during negotiations, especially those which threaten the ‘Open Door Policy’ that America and the Europeans favor. Today, Wilson replies to Lansing with instructions for an even-handed approach.
I suggest this as a possible course of action in this delicate matter. I wish that this great change in China might have been postponed, for certainly this seems a most inopportune time to add such fundamental reversals to the general upset of the world.
Could we not give a very plain intimation to the Japanese government and the governments which seem to be acting with it in this matter that we agree with the Chinese in their position that a change in their form of government, however radical, is wholly a domestic question and that it would in our opinion be a serious breach of China’s sovereignty to undertake any form of interference or even protest without such evidences as are now wholly lacking that foreign interests would be imperiled which it is our privilege to safeguard; and at the same time intimate to the Chinese government, in the most friendly manner, our feeling that this is a most critical time in the affairs of the whole world and that her own international and national interests are in danger of being seriously compromised unless the present changes there can be guided with a very firm and prudent hand.
I must say that it would seem from what Reinsch tells us that they are handling the whole thing remarkably well.
Yuan’s ascension will prove to be an unpopular political disaster both abroad and domestically, ending in a matter of months with a return to republican government. But the crisis he has created is a preview of the new three-way transpacific relationship: America is the only significant rival that Japan has left now, making her the essential nation to which China must appeal as a balance against the hegemony of Tokyo, which becomes increasingly resentful of faraway powers limiting their empire’s economic, political, and military domination of the region. The war in Europe is having disruptive effects throughout Africa and Asia, and the fault-lines of the Second World War are already becoming visible in the chaos.