By Eric Vandenbroeck and co-workers

The purpose of this multipart investigation will be two-fold, where one we analyze what led to the 1941-1945 pacific war starting with the discussions following the Treaty of Versailles in context of which Erez Manela in his epic book 1 pointed to 1919 as the "Wilsonian Moment" whereby the purpose of this is too to understand potentially could lead to a futures second pacific war if China follows up on its threats to attack Taiwan with as a purpose to take control of what China terms the South China Sea.

The term South China Sea itself did not exist before the 20th century and was first established as a regional concept in Japan or as the preface to Yoshaburo Takekoshi's 1910 bestseller Nangokukki [Outline of the History of the South Seas], Tokyo: Niyousha, 1910, indicated that "in the last twenty years the name `South Seas' has come into general use" which suggests that this term may have been re-imported to China from Japan.


The Asian Monroe Doctrine

When during the First World War, the Chinese government sent laborers to France to help boost British and French human resources for the first time in its modern history, China articulated a desire to join the world community as an equal and took action to do so. This effort tried to correct the near-fatal mis­takes made in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries when it refused to accommodate the new international system. This time, the international system refused to accept China, but at the Paris Peace Conference, the Chinese fought back. Their refusal to sign the Treaty of Versailles marked the first time since the Opium Wars that China had stood up to certain European countries and the US now too.

As we have seen in part one, Japan and the United States came to the Paris Peace Conference with two divergent world visions. Japanese leaders, who were beginning to embrace particularistic regionalism based on their national identity, were determined to take over Germany’s Asia-Pacific Empire and advance their vision of a Japan-centric regional order in Asia by establishing Japan’s supremacy over China under slogans such as “kyōson kyōei” (coexistence and co-prosperity) or the Asian Monroe Doctrine. The United States, under President Wilson, on the other hand, tried to achieve the liberal peace program manifested in the president’s Fourteen Points anchored on the creation of the League of Nations. Wilson, a champion of the Open Door in China, applied the ideal of self-determination unilaterally to China. Western imperialist powers and Japan still claimed various rights and concessions that infringed on the Chinese sovereignty. Wilson resisted Japan’s claims to the German rights in Shandong and the German Pacific islands north of the equator as much as he could. After a heated debate at the negotiation table, the Versailles Treaty allowed the German rights in Shandong to be ceded to Japan with the understanding that Japan would eventually return Shandong in full sovereignty to China and retain only the economic privileges granted to Germany and the right to establish a settlement in Qingdao. To the dismay of the Chinese delegation, Wilson convinced himself that the League of Nations would police Japan's future behavior in China.

Much of what took place in East Asia displayed the influence of the shared historical background, and the persistence of political and intellectual formulations, among China, Japan, Korea, and the peoples and emerging states of Inner Asia. The deep historical roots of common features of the Chinese cultural system, combined with more recent developments such as the First Sino-Japanese War (1894–1895), the Russo-Japanese War (1904–1905), or the racialization of East Asia into a purportedly monolithic “yellow race,” meant that much of what happened after Versailles Treaty of 1919 in the region was internally generated and not in response to the external stimuli from developments in the West.


The Central Kingdom

A centuries-long historical chronology of Chinese predominance, relations between China and Japan from the 1890s onward transformed the region in ways that left a powerful legacy. New ideas of race and racial hierarchies profoundly informed relations within East Asia and between East Asians and Euro-Americans. New concepts of nationalism and sovereignty (initially introduced to modern Chinese vocabulary through William A. P. Martin's translation of Henry Wheaton's Elements of International Law in 1864) altered the internal dynamics of states, both functional and nascent. Still, in ways that curiously replicated earlier regional political configurations.2 Considering the Longue durée of East Asian history, it is appropriately axiomatic to say that China and its cultures held paramount influence within that regional framework. Just within the context of China’s last dynasty, the Qing (1644–1911), it gained sovereignty over vast new territories, including what is now Mongolia, and strengthened a long-standing—but highly variable—tributary order. The prolonged decline of that system, which occurred as European empires turned tributary states into colonies, pushed Joseon (Choson) Korea (1392–1910) closer to the Qing. Even well into Japan’s Meiji era (1868–1912), leading Japanese intellectuals continued to grapple with the long-standing mental construct. China was, in a literal translation of its name, the Central Kingdom.3 Therefore, Japan’s emergence as first a regional and then a global power disrupted the established order in fundamental and contradictory, ways. On the one hand, the Meiji model and the numerous instances of positive Japanese engagement with China based on a common past and ideas of racial solidarity facilitated a peak of Sino-Japanese comity that lasted into the 1920s, perhaps as late as Sun Yat-sen’s 1924 speech on Asianism in Kobe, Japan. On the other hand, Japan’s victory and acquisitions in the Sino-Japanese War and its subsequent Twenty-One Demands of 1915 fomented deep-seated feelings of betrayal. As a result, the perceived insult from Japan’s demands for Germany’s territories in the Shandong Peninsula at Versailles meant that China’s May Fourth Movement was not just a proximate Wilsonian response but had deeper roots and longer implications. As suggested by the evolving ideology of pan-Asianism and the concept of yellow race solidarity, race, and racialist ideas deeply informed interactions within East Asia and between East Asia and the West. In somewhat of a contradiction, Japanese imperialists predicated their vision of empire upon ideals of racial commonality and practices of distinction. In contrast, Japanese ideologues and officials grounded their great power diplomacy in the principle of racial equality.

Of course, the salience of racialist discourse in East Asia may have been more generalizable to South and West Asia, Africa, or Latin America than was the Euro-American pursuit of internationalist peace embodied in the League of Nations because the movement from colony to a nation-state was mediated through the racist ideologies of an empire. In this sense, both the weaknesses of the interwar period's internationalist institutions and the origins of the postcolonial world order of nation-states rested not merely in anti-colonialist opposition to  Euro-American hegemony but also in the pursuit of Asianism and the debate over racial equality during 1919 and beyond the Versailles Treaty. 


From the hierarchy of time to the hierarchy of space

The surge in nationalist activism and the intensified insistence on establishing and preserving sovereignty around that time reflected key transformations and continuities. It marked a shift in conceptions of organizing world societies from a hierarchy of time, which was based upon the idea of progression from barbarism to civilization, to a hierarchy of space that emphasized the right of self-determination and the defense of a conjoined territorial and political integrity.4 This transition in worldview led to nation-states' production that greatly resembled the sovereign units of the prior tributary order. That is, a modern China filled most of the space of the old Qing Empire; a modern Japan occupied slightly more than the Tokugawa bakufu; and the two modern Korean states that emerged after 1945 were built out of competing visions of what should replace the Joseon kingdom (or the Korean Empire, as it became in 1897) on the peninsula. Similar developments occurred across Southeast Asia, along with creating new entities, such as Mongolia, through the same concept of the sovereign nation-state. These new nation-states owed much to the Wilsonian ideas of national self-determination and international order circulated at the time. To pick two examples, the anti-Japanese protests in Korea (see more about that below) and China in 1919 expressed strong currents of the new nationalism. Both Chinese leaders and Korean nationalists sought validation and support at Versailles. But Wilson was not the architect of these movements. Although a chief legacy of the 1919 Treaty of Versailles was the regional political order of 1945 and after, the striking similarities between that postwar system and the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries again challenge Eurocentric narratives of international history. The new nations of East Asia and their interactions held stronger ties to the old regional system than they did to the Paris Peace Conference.

In making these larger points, we contended that the 1919 moment, broadly defined to extend beyond the calendar year, held tremendous importance in East  Asia and for East Asians, in part because what came after can fairly be referred to as a new era. 


Leninist and Wilsonian Internationalism

Moreover, this period also marked the shift in the center of gravity of international power from the Eastern to the Western shores of the Atlantic Ocean. As such, numerous scholars have made the Treaty of Versailles and its consequences a subject of intensive scrutiny, with particular attention to the diplomatic processes that shaped the post–Great War world, the fierce ideological and political debates that took place between Leninist and Wilsonian internationalism, and the rise of nationalistic movements among peoples under the sway of colonial rule. Scholars have examined the transition from the imperialistic “old diplomacy” to the more liberal internationalist “new diplomacy” that occurred across 1919.5

Although President Wilson helped to forge a new set of standards for the conduct of nations in the arena of international relations, while publicly repudiated gunboat diplomacy (alias Dollar Diplomacy), he acted as had his predecessors to maintain U.S. supremacy in Central America and the Caribbean and enforced racially discriminatory federal policies at home that seemed out of step with the idealism of his Fourteen Points.6

Others have focused on the Wilsonian Moment's global reach, in which Chinese, Koreans, Egyptians, and Indians all seized on the promise of self-determination and launched anti-colonial movements for gaining national independence.7

Thus could argue that the new internationalists of the twentieth century, which was a reaction against nineteenth-century proletarian internationalism and cosmopolitanism, were shaped alongside nationalism by a realist vision and languages of race and civilization. At the end of The First World War, the principle of nationality and the League of Nations were the shared basis for the new international world order. The new liberal internationalism, of course, underlay among others that institution.8

Thus, the prevailing understanding of 1919 needs a corrective that shifts attention outside of the Northern Atlantic to include East Asia. Much of this historiography has been national and/or nationalist in focus, particularly in the cases of the substantial literature around Korea’s March First Movement and China’s May Fourth Movement and that links East Asia to other parts of the globe at this time in meaningful ways.9

Generally omitted from earlier accounts are Japan’s considerable efforts to shape the postwar international system, the voices of East Asian nationalists and transnationalism who found new validation—but not unprecedented inspiration—for their struggles in some of Wilson’s pronouncements, and the objections that East Asians raised to Euro-American dominance that would shape international and transnational movements from that point onward. The period under discussion was when the non-Western world focused increasingly upon issues of race and ethnicity, on nationality and sovereignty, as demonstrated by the widespread attention and support that Japan received when it proposed adding a racial equality clause to the League’s convention. That is but one example of the multiple ways East Asians formed and re-formed their own realities in the wake of the First World War. States, private individuals, and social groups in Japan, China, Korea, and Mongolia encountered East Asia’s post-1919 in dialogue with the agendas advanced by the Western powers, but from a position of an agency that facilitated advocacy of their own interests rather than passive reception of the programs of others.


Western and Eastern Sovereignty

Sovereignty, which was characterized by the definition and defense of spaces and peoples over which emergent nation-states asserted solitary control; Nationalism, for which 1919 served as the context for both immediate and very long-range efforts at nation-building; Asia- Pacific Ascendancy, seen in the articulation of principles and strategies to promote Asian leadership in world affairs, or at least an equal share thereof; and Peace and Reconstruction, in which new opportunities for rebuilding the region, and the world, existed and the new initiatives were proffered to actualize those possibilities.

As we have seen in China's case, sovereignty does not inherently depend upon the nation's ideas. As the cases show, Chinese intellectuals and political leaders grappled with differing forms of sovereignty, imperial, national, legal, administrative, individual, as they refashioned China and its place in the interwar world.

It was the attacks by Europeans and Americans on “China Proper” after 1840 and then defeated by Japan in the war of 1895 that forced the Qing to engage with the outside world on new terms. Those clashes fused pre-existing Sinitic ideas of an “all-powerful” ruler with Western ideas of states' separateness to create an idea of sovereignty as a moral order rather than simply a legal arrangement. In contemporary China, sovereignty is defended as a moral imperative, a matter of life and death, rather than a convenient way to organize a complex international society. The word - sovereignty was initially introduced to modern Chinese vocabulary thru William A. P. Martin's translation of Henry Wheaton's Elements of International Law in 1864. Previously it was also translated as 薩威棱貼. Martin's translation became definitive and also traveled to Japan. So this most important term in the international relations of modern China was coined by an American. 

It is only after the Republic of China's founding and its intellectuals who had traveled abroad and were able to look back on their homeland from afar that promoted the establishment and formation of the concept of “Chinese nation.” This included the construction of China through government actions toward overseas Chinese.

The first to put forward and use the concept of Nation of China(中国民族) was Liang Qichao in 1902. Soon after, Liang mentioned “Chinese nation” several times in Observation of Nations in China in History (1904) and made investigations on problems such as whether the “Chinese nation” was originally a single nation or was formed by multiple ethnic groups through fusion. This led him to consider that if it was formed by multiple ethnic groups through fusion, whether there was a “most important ethnic group” and “why it was the “most important ethnic group.” Thus Liang created a continuity story: the expansion of a civilized territory outwards from its cradle in the Yellow River valley.

During the First World War, China’s political leaders and private citizens learned an important lesson from their historical experiences with extraterritoriality practices. They learned that a key marker of a nation’s sovereign status was its assertion of sovereignty over those it claimed as citizens beyond its territorial borders. In the process, by 1923, overseas Chinese had become an important and often effective venue for nation-state construction from both the state outward and the society inward. Turning from the international arena to more prominently domestic contexts, and the transition from a hierarchy of time to a hierarchy of space that was concretized by a shift to locating it in the field of geography.


The crucial March First and May Fourth movements

Thus the May Fourth Movement contained both an anti-colonialist nationalist movement and a cultural awakening, which combined to mark the transformation of China from a hazily defined as 'All-Under-Heaven' to a nation-state with attempted (more on that in part three) a demarcated geo-body. A generation of China’s cultural elite, disillusioned with the oft-advertised civilization of the imperialist world system and betrayed by Japan’s demands for Chinese territory at Versailles, altered its views of the world and China’s place in it during the decade or so following 1919. No longer embracing the “community of nations” that promised respect and security for all members, many Chinese now viewed the international system, particularly Japan, as predatory. The best defense was to reconceptualize China, not as an empire based on principles, but as a nation-state located in a fixed, though expandable, territory, with inviolable sovereignty over all that occurred within its boundaries.

This also underlaid the vociferous attacks leveled at the doyenne of Chinese reformers, Kang Youwei, by representatives of both the Left and the Right factions of the New Culture Movement (1915–1923). People like Chen Duxiu and Li Dazhao on the Left and Hu Shi and Liang Shuming on the Right. They attacked traditional Confucian ideas and exalted Western ideas of liberalism, pragmatism, nationalism, anarchism, and socialism. Much of their discourse was framed in terms of varied critiques of Kang’s ideas. Each figure attempted to link their ideological opponents to Kang to distance themselves from his outmoded thinking. And while advancing ideas like Marxism, and thus the salience. Eachas, they also demonstrated the internal dynamics through which these intellectuals drew upon China’s intellectual past even as they attacked Kang for his devotion to the Great Harmony of the Confucian worldview—China as “all under heaven”— alias the hierarchy of the time. Thus 1915–1923 was a turning point in China’s modernization and transformation into a sovereign nation-state.

Similarly, for Korea in 1919, there were massive March First demonstrations in Korea and the Shanghai Provisional Government's creation. Also known as the Sam-il (3-1) Movement (Hangul: 삼일 운동; Hanja: 三一 運動), was one of the earliest public displays of Korean resistance during the rule of Korea by Japan from 1910 to 1945—continued to resonate through the regimes and political debates from the government of Syngman Rhee through the student movements of the 1980s to the twenty-first-century disputes around South Korea’s relations with the North. The figure of Syngman Rhee, the Christian convert with strong ties to the United States who became the first president of the Shanghai Provisional Government, and the Constitution of that administrative, state-like entity, sits at the core of Lee’s study. Lee argues that all of the postwar political tumults can be traced back to how particular regimes or factions assess and claim (or reject) Rhee's inheritance, the Constitution, and the March First Movement. For example, Rhee’s ascendancy after Korea’s liberation from Japan, the enshrinement of the 1919 Provisional Constitution and Rhee's March First in the 1987 South Korean Constitution as its antecedents, and President Moon Jae-in’s seemingly pro-unification efforts toward North Korea are all manifestations of Korean contestation over three key issues: anti-Japanese nationalism, single-race ethnonationalism, and the importance of the U.S.-Korean alliance. Lee’s evidence and analysis are complex, and contemporary domestic and international politics loom large. Still, he offers a compelling conclusion that an emerging new Cold War system, in which South Korea leans toward North Korea and China and away from the United States and Japan, has its historical origins in the events of 1919.

There were crucial events taking place in the decade after the Paris Peace Conference that deeply fractured the framework of international relations and defined the fissures that produced a tidal wave in the following decade. Like in the form of the Japanese immigration issue—played in subsequent U.S.-Japan relations, including within the Japanese Navy that appeared just at the moment when the United States and Japan had emerged as the dominant powers in the Pacific.

As a victor of the Great War, Japan emerged as the first non-white global power in 1919. However, Japan quickly realized that membership in the Big Five powers did not ensure complete equality with the white powers. Thus, Minohara examines the immigration issue between the United States and Japan—which manifested itself in the form of the anti-Japanese movement primarily in California—that resurfaced as a major point of friction between the two countries as the war in Europe had concluded.            

Japan failed to get the racial equality clause included in the League Covenant but was unable to halt the passage of the 1920 Alien Land Law in California. The choice to apply the laws only to those aliens ineligible for citizenship rather than all aliens meant that European aliens would not be affected. Because of this, the bill was decidedly directed at Asians and specifically at the Japanese, who had become a strong presence in the agricultural labor market as well as in the control of farms.


Could the Pacific war Dec 1941-2 September 1945 be avoided?

However, the Japanese diplomats who valued strong U.S.-Japan relations were determined to find a solution to the problem, which had been a sore point between the two nations since 1906. These efforts led to the 1920-21 Morris-Shidehara talks, but this diplomatic solution. This unfortunate political decision would come to haunt U.S.-Japan relations a mere four years later with the enactment of the Japanese exclusion act. Realizing that it could never break through the racial glass ceiling, this clear rejection by the West became a catalyst for Japan to vigorously return to Asia once again in the form of pan-Asianism.

The U.S.-Japan rivalry escalated in the aftermath of the First World War to the point where the new Republican administration under President Warren Harding felt that it was necessary to initiate a naval limitation conference when strategic thinking permeated the Japanese Navy. Of course, the Japanese Navy was far from being a monolithic entity as illustrated by the clash between Admiral Katō Tomosaburō and Vice Admiral Katō Kanji, who differed vastly in their view of global naval strategy and the future course that Japan should take.

Pictured below is Katō Tomosaburō, Prime Minister of Japan flanked by Baron Shidehara, who would assume the position of Prime Minister in 1945, and Tokugawa Iesato, then the first Prince (公爵) of the Tokugawa clan.

Despite the vast distance from the western front, Japan’s wartime contribution of naval power, arms, ammunition, shipping, and capital catapulted it to a rank of global prominence. Present at the Paris Peace Conference as one of five great powers, the so-called Big Five, Japan was tasked with the most pressing global concern of the day: establishing the foundations for lasting peace in Europe. Japanese delegates eagerly joined the quest for national and global reconstruction as a natural extension of wartime support for the allied cause and guarantee of Japan’s new status as a world power. The Versailles and Washington systems would eventually crumble in the 1930s, not because of a lack of Japanese commitment to peace in the 1920s, but rather because of growing apprehension among conservatives and the radical right in Japan of the political implications of the new postwar infrastructure of peace. To forestall a further erosion of their domestic politics reached fruition, the ideas and attempts marked a significant departure from the pre-1919 or at least the prewar era.


Part 1: Overview of the discussions following the 1919 or "Wilsonian moment,” a notion that extends before and after that calendar year: Part One Can a potential future Pacific War be avoided?

Part 3: The important Chinese factions beyond 1919 and the need for China to create a new Nation-State and how Japan, in turn, sought to expand into Asia through liberal imperialism and then sought to consolidate its empire through liberal internationalism were covered in: Part Three Can a potential future Pacific War be avoided?

Part 4: The various arrangements between the US and Japan, including The Kellogg–Briand Pact or Pact in 1928 and The Treaty for the Limitation and Reduction of Naval Armament of 1930. Including that American policy toward Japan until shortly before the Pearl Harbor attack was not the product of a rational, value-maximizing decisional process. Rather, it constituted the cumulative, aggregate outcome of several bar­gaining games which would enable them to carry out their preferred Pacific strategy was covered in: Part Four Can a potential future Pacific War be avoided?

Part 5: The Manchurian crisis and its connection to the winding road to World War II are covered in: Part Five Can a potential future Pacific War be avoided?

Part 6:The war itself quickly unfolded in favor of Japan’s regionalist ambitions, a subject we carried through to the post-world war situation. Whereby we also discussed when Japan saw itself in a special role as mediator between the West (“Euro-America”) and the East (“Asia”) to “harmonize” or “blend” the two civilizations and demanded that Japan lead Asia in this anti-Western enterprise there are parallels with what Asim Doğan in his extensive new book describes how the ambiguous and assertive Belt and Road Initiative is a matter of special concern in this aspect. The Tributary System, which provides concrete evidence of how Chinese dynasties handled with foreign relations, is a useful reference point in understanding its twenty-first-century developments. This is particularly true because, after the turbulence of the "Century of Humiliation" and the Maoist Era, China seems to be explicitly re-embracing its history and its pre-revolutionary identity in: Part Six Can a potential future Pacific War be avoided?

Part 7: Part Seven Can a potential future Pacific War be avoided?

Part 8: While initially both the nationalist Chiang Kai-shek (anti-Mao Guomindang/KMT), including Mao's Communist Party (CCP), had long supported independence for Taiwan rather than reincorporation into China, this started to change following the publication of the New Atlas of China's Construction created by cartographer Bai Meichu in 1936. A turning point for Bai and others who saw China's need to create a new Nation-State was the Versailles peace conference's outcome in 1919 mentioned in part one. Yet that from today's point of view, the fall of Taiwan to China would be seen around Asia as the end of American predominance and even as “America’s Suez,” hence demolishing the myth that Taiwan has no hope is critical. And that while the United States has managed to deter Beijing from taking destructive military action against Taiwan over the last four decades because the latter has been relatively weak, the risks of this approach inches dangerously close to outweighing its benefits. Conclusion and outlook.


1. Erez Manela,The Wilsonian Moment: Self-Determination and the International Origins of Anticolonial Nationalism (Oxford Studies in International History), 2009.

2. See Sebastian Conrad and Jürgen Osterhammel, eds., An Emerging Modern World, 1750-1870 (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2018). 

3. Stefan Tanaka, Japan’s Orient: Rendering Pasts into History (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1993). 

4. Tze-ki Hon, “From a Hierarchy in Time to a Hierarchy in Space: The Meanings of Sino-Babylonianism in Early Twentieth-Century China,” Modern China 36.2 (2010): 139–169. 

5. See for example Akira Iriye, After Imperialism: The Search for a New Order in the Far East, 1921-1931 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1965). 

6. See for example Thomas J. Knock, To End All Wars: Woodrow Wilson and the Quest for a New World Order Revised ed. Edition, 1995.

7. On this see for example Erez Manela, The Wilsonian Moment: Self-Determination and the International Origins of Anticolonial Nationalism (Oxford Studies in International History), 2009.

8. See among others Glenda Sluga, Internationalism in the Age of Nationalism (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013), p. 5.

9. Frederick R. Dickinson, World War I and the Triumph of a New Japan, 1919-1930 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013); Noriko Kawamura, Turbulence in the Pacific: Japanese-U.S. Relations during World War I (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2000); and Xu Guoqi, China and the Great War: China’s Pursuit of a New National Identity and Internationalization (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005). 



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