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The Second Sino-Japanese War as a metaphor for the war in Ukraine.

Updated: Mar 27, 2022


The conflict in Ukraine is often likened, particularly by the media, to the Second World War. Putin is compared to Hitler and Ukraine to 'poor little Poland in 1939'. Talk of appeasement has been almost ubiquitous (1a). See previous 2 blogs.

However, while researching the Second Sino-Japanese War 1937 for a student of mine, I've noticed a striking similarity between Japan's actions in the years leading up to the invasion of Northern China and Russia's actions prior to their invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

More fundamentally however, it is the Russio-Japanese War 1905 which followed the first Sino-Japanese War - 1894-95 which tells us much about the cyclical nature of Russian imperial expansion and contraction over the last two centuries - and indeed, this blog will argue that cyclical and destructive nature of imperialism is illustrated through these and later historical conflicts and so applies to all the European empires, indeed all empires throughout time.

Therefore this blog attempts to offer hope to the reader, in such a way that it argues each imperial building exercise is doomed to failure. Empires are, by definition, ephemeral, and so although we might not witness the failure of the latest Russian and NATO (2) efforts in our lifetime, they will one day end.

What is of even more interest, than the connection between the Second Sino-Japanese War and Ukraine, is that history shows us that an American intervention in Japan in the second half of the1800s is partly responsible for that country's disastrous venture into imperialism in 1937 (1), and we know how that ended; with first the bombing of Pearl Harbour and then fatefully, the dropping of the Atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki (Presumably then, our present situation vis-a-vis Ukraine is a convoluted iteration of Marx's notion of history repeating itself as first tragedy then farce).

Indeed, the outcome for Japan after seeking imperial expansion, by definition, through military means, was apocalyptic. The same outcome for the whole of Europe is now offered up by politicians and their acolytes in the Western media, as they catastrophize about our future.

An Imperial Dance in the Sorcerer's Cauldron

The historical events of the second half of the 19th and mid-20th century in South East Asia and the Pacific seem to read as though a dreadful spell was being cast not only on the old empires of Europe, and indeed on the US, but on the world.

For example, The Second-Sino Japanese War began in 1937 when the Japanese invaded Manchuria. By 1937 Japan had become a militaristic society and had a war-like culture. Japan had viewed the old European empires and thought they were important enough to take their place on the world stage as an imperial power too, with territory to match. In 1905 Japan had inflicted a defeat on Russia which had humiliated the Tsarist regime which lost 2 of its 3 naval fleets.

Japan had been at war with China in the First Sino-Japanese war in 1894-95 in a fight over who controlled the Korean Peninsula. Japan invaded Taiwan and annexed Korea. From the mid-1800s Japan began to change.

American Commodore Matthew Perry had forced open ultra-traditional and secluded Tokugawa and Shogun dominated Japan. This saw in the Meiji Restoration in 1886. It was this intervention which precipitated Japan's movement to a militaristic society and a nationalistic country seeking an empire (1).

After defeating Qing China, Japan controlled Korea, which it finally annexed in 1910. However in 1895 the two countries signed the Treaty of Shimonoseki which ended the First Sino-Japanese War and ceded Korea, the Penghu Islands and Liaodong Peninsula to Japan.

The old European powers of Britain, France, Germany and particularly Russia were alarmed by the growth of Meiji Japan and forced the latter to hand the Peninsula to Russia in exchange for payment.

This ultimately led to the Russio-Japanese War of 1905. The defeat of Russia and its humiliation is outlined above. The defeat also helped to precipitate the1905 revolution in the Tsarist regime.

The Fallout: the Second Sino-Japanese War 1937

In 1937 Japan invaded Manchuria and Shanghai. (Manchuria and Mongolia were in and out of the orbit of China, Russia and Japan a number of times), including Russia 1945 as part of the Yalta Agreement).

After a staged incident at the Marco-Polo Bridge, which used the pretext of a missing Japanese soilder as the starting point for an-ill judged and ill-fated military adventure; which would see the 'Empire of the Sun' move across the Far-East, from China to Korea, Siam, Indo-French China to New Guinea and the Philippines and more (3).

The Reckoning

After the infamous Nanking Massacre in 1937 Japan became bogged down in Northern China. The Nationalists (The Kuomintang) under Kiang-Chai-Shek and the Communists under Mao Tse Tung joined forces to fight Japan, and along with an embargo (sanctions*) by the US and Britain et al., this held Japan in check in a bloody war of atrocity and attrition (see map below).

In 1941 Japan 'awoke a sleeping giant' when in an act of seeming madness much like the Russian invasion of Ukraine, they bombed Pearl Harbour.

There is no need to traverse the tos and fros of the war in the Pacific as we know how the story ends: two Atomic bombs dropped in the cruellest of military and human experiments (See the film, The Empire of the Sun for an insight into how Japanese expansionism led to this).

What is worth considering perhaps are the parallels and the interconnectedness between Japan's actions in 1937 and the consequences of these for them. Moreover, how Russia from their defeat at the hands of Japan to the October Revolution, to victory over Nazi Germany, to the Cold-War, to Afghanistan to the end of the Cold-War, the collapse of the Soviet Union to its renaissance under Mr Putin (Syria, and the original attack and annexation of eastern Ukraine in 2014; and accompanying sanctions*) has arguably travelled to a destination not dissimilar to Japan's in 1941 following a decision as mad and reckless as the invasion of Ukraine clearly is.

One can but hope we do not have an inversion of the Japanese experience, in which Russia decides to use weapons of mass destruction, or indeed that the West precipitates this; presumably if it did, this would be an inversion of Marx's famous '... ... history repeats first as tragedy then as farce... ...). (z)

*what this says about the relevance of the anti-appeasement argument and the usefulness of sanctions I leave to the reader to interpret







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