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The Mukden Incident / Manchurian War - 1931-1933

Manchuria, meaning the far north-eastern provinces of China, played a role in the Japanese economy. During the Boxer Rebellion of 1900, Russia sent anarmy into Manchuria and threatened Japan's position in Korea. This led tothe conclusion of an alliance with Great Britain in 1902. Japan had gained economic concessions in Manchuria in the wake of the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05, and rights to station troops in the region to guard these interests.

Japanese dominance in the Russo-Japanese war of 1904 was validated with the Treaty of Portsmouth in 1905. Here, Japan acquired southern Sakhalin and the Russian interests in Southern Manchuria which included the South Manchuria Railway. This rail network was seen by the Japaneseas integral to their future expansion. It was semi-state owned, and controlled an extensive network of extractive industries including coal, mineral ores, and forests. It carried the bulk of Japan's economic programs in Manchuria. The Japanese began the serious development of southern Manchuria and sent troops, the Kwantung Army, to protect their personnel and property from the bandits and warlords of the area.

For most of the long civil war that followed the Chinese Revolution of 1911, Manchuria was controlled by a local warlord who did not answer to the authority of the nominal central government. In early 1931, the Manchurian warlord Chang Hsueh-liang requested financial assistance from the Kuomintang government in Nanking to begin construction of railroads in Manchuria. These would directly compete with Japan's South Manchurian Railroad, threatening the Japanese "life-line" in Manchuria. By March 1931, the Kuomintang opened bureaus in all Manchurian cities. In April 1931, the Chinese government formally announced it would reclaim all former Chinese territories and rights, including concessions, railroads and other properties. Expansionist-minded Japanese army officers convinced themselves that control of Manchuria was essential to Japan's security and that its resources were a key to Japan's economic well-being. In 1931-32, they initiated a military takeover of the region.

Late in the evening of September 18, 1931, a small explosion slightly damaged a section of track where the South Manchuria Railway passed through the walled city of Mukden in Manchuria. This explosion, and an alleged attack on the occupying troops of the Japanese Kwantung Army - the Mukden Incident - were used as the rationale for what soon led to Japan's occupation of all of Manchuria. Japanese soldiers were quickly reinforced to a strength of approximately 500 and mounted an attack, supported by artillery, on the Chinese barracks, routing about 10,000 Chinese soldiers. During the Tokyo war crimes trials after World War II, the Mukden Incident was found to have been "a complete fabrication of the Japanese army or, rather, certain members of the army, notably the 'young officer' clique of the Kwantung Army."

Ostensibly this was a "liberation" which resulted in the establishment of an "independent" "Empire of Manchukuo." In fact, "Manchukuo" was a de-facto Japanese colony whose economy was integrated with that of Japan. There have been several studies of the Manchurian economy in this period. Of these, Kang Chao's 1983 study provides the most comprehensive and systematic estimates of population and economic product.

The Japanese invasion of Manchuria was a clear violation of both the Nine-Power Pact and the 1928 Kellogg-Briand Pact, also signed by Japan, in which the signatories agreed to renounce war "as an instrument of national policy." The international response, therefore, was one of alarm. Nevertheless, given that most of the industrialized world was in the grip of the Great Depression, no concrete steps were taken to block this act of aggression.

The United States and other western powers were at a loss on how to respond to the rapidly developing crisis. Even as the Japanese moved far from the original site of the "attack" at Mukden to bomb the city of Jinzhou (Chinchow), there was little sense that U.S. interests in the area were anywhere near profound enough to make military intervention necessary or desirable. Given the 1930s worldwide depression, there was little support for economic sanctions to punish the Japanese. Instead, the United States sat in on League of Nations council meetings for the first time to try to convince the League to enforce the Kellogg-Briand Pact, which both Japan and China had signed. Appeals based on the pact, however, proved ineffective.

US Secretary Stimson issued the Stimson Doctrine in early 1932. This Doctrine stated that the United States would not recognize any treaty or agreement between Japan and China that violated US rights or agreements to which the United States subscribed. This doctrine of non-recognition proved incredibly ineffectual in the face of on-going Japanese aggression and expansion. Japan had been expanding its influence in Manchuria for years, and now it formally controlled the territory.

Within a few short months, the Japanese army had overrun the region, having encountered next to no resistance from an untrained Chinese army, and it went about consolidating its control on the resource-rich area. The Japanese declared the area to be the new autonomous state of Manchukuo, though the new nation was in fact under the control of the local Japanese army.

After its successful conquest of Manchuria in 1931, the Japanese attacked the city of Shanghai in 1932. As Shanghai was home to the largest international settlements in China, the sudden invasion threatened foreign concessions as well. Stimson responded to this development by declaring that as a result of Japanese violation of the Nine Power Treaty, the United States would no longer consider itself bound by the naval limitations agreements. This meant a potential new naval arms race in the Pacific that would inevitably draw in the Japanese.

While the United States sought its own solution, it also sent an unofficial delegate along with the League of Nations group investigating the incident. The resulting report, written by the Lytton Commission, divided blame for the conflict in Manchuria equally between Chinese nationalism and Japanese militarism. Still, the report stated that it would not recognize the new state of Manchukuo on the grounds that its establishment violated the territorial integrity of China, and therefore the Nine-Power Treaty to which many of the prominent league members subscribed. When the Lytton Report was ratified by the League in 1933, the Japanese delegation walked out and never returned to the League Council. The Chinese and Japanese signed a truce, but that agreement left the Japanese firmly in control of Manchuria.

All of this, of course, meant that Japan believed that it could proceed with its plans for China without foreign interference. In March 1932 Tokyo announced the creation of an "independent" state of Manchukuo, to be ruled by the former Chinese Emperor (who had been deposed twenty years earlier, at the age of five). In December 1932 the Japanese Army invaded the neighboring Chinese province of Jehol, which was promptly declared part of Manchukuo. The following year Japan withdrew its delegation from the League of Nations. The situation in Asia was rapidly growing dangerous, although few in the United States recognized this fact. One of the few who did was Joseph Grew, U.S. ambassador to Tokyo. As he put it in an August 13, 1932 letter to Secretary of State Stimson, the Japanese military "has been built for war, feels prepared for war and would welcome war. It has never yet been beaten and possesses unlimited self confidence. I am not an alarmist but I believe that we should have our eyes open to all possible future contingencies. The facts of history would render it criminal to close them."

Once involved in Manchuria, Japan attempted to build a new and allied nation. They set up a puppet government, renamed the state Manchukuo, and then conducted a decadelong counter-insurgency campaign designed to consolidate their control of the new acquisition. Internal Japanese struggles between their civil authorities and the military leadership ensured their failure to develop sufficient popular support to mold and hold Manchukuo. Manchuria was becoming more and more vulnerable. The territory was bordered on the north by the revolutionary Soviets and the violently anti-Communist Kwantung Army was watching Soviet moves with some alarm. On the south was revolutionary, and now strongly nationalist, China.

Early Japanese successes yielded them much of North China. Then it was Shanghai, Nanking and Canton, and in 1938 Hankow. Although the United States diplomatically responded in angry tones to the League of Nations' condemnation of Japan, little was accomplished. The rift between Japan and the United States grew ever wider as Japan assumed a dominant role in East Asian affairs. The Marco Polo bridge incident in July 1937 was followed by all-out war between Japan and China, made easier for the Japanese as a result of the Chinese civil war, which pitted Chiang Kai-shek's Kuomintang against Mao Tse-tung's Communist forces.

By provoking an incident at the Marco Polo Bridge near Peking on 7 July 1937, the Japanese created a pretext for beginning unrestricted warfare on China. Their rapid military gains in north-central China culminated in the infamous "Rape of Nanking" in mid-December 1937 and the "accidental" sinking of the river gunboat USS Panay (PR-5) near that city only days before.

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Page last modified: 14-06-2019 18:03:43 ZULU